Clearing the Path For Scion of Egypt

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 10, 2006; 2:19 AM

CAIRO -- The son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a group of close associates have moved into key political positions that put the younger man in line to succeed his aging father at a time when the government has taken steps to block opposition rivals from challenging the heir apparent.

Last month, Gamal Mubarak rose in the hierarchy of the governing National Democratic Party, whose grass-roots organization underpins his father's rule. He was named one of three NDP deputy secretaries general, and 20 of his associates took other high-ranking posts in the party. Mubarak had served as head of the party's policies committee, which helped fashion economic reforms.

Mubarak and his backers displaced some, but not all, of the veteran NDP activists known collectively as the old guard. Political observers saw in the move a gradual shift toward putting the NDP at the service of the president's son.

"Who can deny this is anything but a vehicle for succession?" said Hala Mustafa, an analyst at the government-financed al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

With the opposition on the defensive, there seems to be nothing blocking Mubarak's path to the presidency. "I don't see anyone who can stop him," said Joshua Stracher, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who studies the Arab Middle East.

Egypt has been singled out by President Bush as ripe for democratic reform. On a recent visit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed general criticism of the pace of change in the country, saying there had been "disappointments and setbacks" last year. She said she discussed these with Egyptian officials "as a friend, not as a judge."

A few days later, President Mubarak told an Egyptian newspaper that Rice was "convinced by the way political reform" was proceeding in Egypt and that during her visit, she "didn't bring up difficult issues or ask to change anything."

During a quarter-century in power, Mubarak, now 77, never named a vice president, unlike his two predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the event he dies in office or resigns, elections would take place within two months. Theoretically, under rules decreed by Mubarak last year, multiple candidates could run to succeed him. However, the chances are shrinking that anyone but Gamal Mubarak will be able to launch an effective campaign, observers say.

Following weak showings in last fall's parliamentary elections, legal opposition parties, long hobbled by laws restricting assembly and speech, are in disarray. Only the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in a strong position, winning a fifth of the legislative seats despite violent efforts by police to block voters from reaching the polls. As a religious-based party, the Brotherhood was formally banned from participating but fielded candidates as independents.

The government recently undercut the Brotherhood by postponing municipal elections scheduled for this year. The two-year delay denied the well-organized group a chance to make yet another electoral splash. Moreover, for the Brotherhood to eventually sponsor an independent presidential candidate, the nominee would need approval from municipal councils, all of which currently are dominated by officials who support President Mubarak, and elements of parliament.

The election delay was announced only a few weeks after Gamal Mubarak publicly supported the ban on political activity by the Brotherhood.

"The question of how we should deal at the political and legal levels with attempts to circumvent the national consensus that bans religious parties is on the table," he told the state-run Roz al-Yusef newspaper. The Brotherhood, he said, "has no legal existence, so from the legal point of view we must deal with it on that basis."

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