By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 11, 2007
CAIRO -- Tall and gangly, his hairline edging toward the back of his head, the man on stage in khakis and shirt sleeves spoke woodenly despite the energy and friendliness evident in his audience of well-off Egyptian college students and recent graduates.
The speaker's hand gestures lagged behind his words. Passion flowed into his voice only when he talked about trade liberalization and market reform. His listeners at the youth forum applauded, but not as much as they had for some other speakers.
Gamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the man most widely expected to succeed him, had not made much of an impression. Then again, Egyptians say, Gamal Mubarak probably doesn't have to.
Egyptians have never experienced a democratic transfer of presidential power. As Hosni Mubarak, 79, begins the 27th year of his rule this month, many say they expect Mubarak's family and ruling party, military officers and security officials to decide on his successor.
Egypt's National Democratic Party is now the only party legally eligible to field a presidential candidate; an independent candidate would need to secure approval to run from commissions dominated by ruling party members.
If power passes to Gamal Mubarak, Egypt would join Syria, Jordan and Morocco -- the latter two officially kingdoms -- on the growing list of modern Middle East dynasties in which sons have taken over from fathers in governments of elites backed by the military and security services. In Libya and Yemen, sons are also seen as the leading candidates to succeed their fathers.
In Egypt, "we didn't choose Sadat, we didn't choose Mubarak, and we're not choosing the next one," Zakaria Nahla, a 52-year-old salesman of cheap furniture, said in a Cairo market crowded with beeping scooters and veiled women picking through racks of clothes.
Asked if they expected to have any say about Mubarak's succession, a group of men with their arms full of round loaves of bread answered in unison, "No, no, no." One underscored the point by wagging a finger and shaking his head.
"We take it as a given" that it will be Gamal Mubarak, said Sayida Amin, 46, a nanny who works for a family in one of Cairo's wealthier districts. "People don't know who he is. We only know he's the president's son, and he's imposed on us."
"We should give him the benefit of the doubt," Amin added, and laughed. "Because he's going to come anyway."
Hosni Mubarak, who rose from the vice presidency when Islamic radicals assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, has never appointed a vice president or announced his preference for a successor. Under the constitution, elections for a new president must follow within 60 days if the president yields power.
While authorities have never confirmed any ailments more serious than back problems for Mubarak, his age has helped fuel cycles of rumors that he is dying or dead.
Gamal Mubarak denies any interest in the presidency, but he is accumulating power in the ruling party and as his father's economic adviser.
Most Egyptians call Gamal "Jimmy." Educated in Egypt, Gamal, 43, left a job as an investment banker in London in 2000 to return home, and took a post as head of the ruling party's policy committee. He married for the first time this year.
Acquaintances of the family say that his shyness makes him appear reserved and that he is a devoted uncle who films his older brother's children at school events. Young members of the ruling party call him funny and relaxed in private.
Gamal Mubarak is credited with putting his wonky inclinations to work by helping build a team of savvy, energetic officials around his father, including Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, to overhaul the socialist-oriented economic policies inherited from President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Cautious but business-friendly changes such as cutting the overvalued Egyptian pound have helped the country achieve a 7 percent growth rate this year and attract $11 billion in direct foreign investment. That's up from less than $500 million three or four years ago, said Simon Kitchen, a private economist in Cairo.
"I think with Gamal, maybe, his influence is in . . . explaining or advocating the ideas of economic reform to his father because, obviously, he has that access," Kitchen said.
Gamal Mubarak and his economic engineering seem remote to many Egyptians.
Forty percent of the country's people live in poverty, according to U.S. development figures, and 80 percent are labeled low-income by the Egyptian government. Inflation, caused in part by the policy changes, has eaten away at buying power, especially for those with low salaries. Teachers, for example, generally earn much less than $100 a month.
"Gamal has never taken a bus, never stopped at a red light, never met anyone who wasn't cleared by security services," said Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Cairo's al-Dustor newspaper. The government filed criminal charges against Eissa for reporting on rumors about the president's health, but Eissa said he suspects he actually is being targeted for an article in which he alleged that first lady Suzanne Mubarak was prodding her husband to yield power to their son.
But Gamal Mubarak's pro-market economic views already have won him the support of many in the business community, said Steven A. Cook, a specialist on civilian-military relations in the Middle East and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Salah Diab, a leading businessman, praised Gamal Mubarak warmly for helping to bring new thinking to the country's economic policies. Asked about the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency, Diab said, "I wouldn't mind at all." But like others here, weary of leaders who leave office only when death ushers them out, Diab said he wants Egypt's presidency limited to one or two terms.
"If he thinks he's coming to be the fourth pharaoh in a row" -- after Nasser, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak -- "I don't think that's going to be acceptable to anyone," Diab said.
Egypt's military has picked the country's rulers for more than half a century. Nasser, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak came from the officer corps, whose endorsement is still seen as essential for whoever wishes to be president.
What Egypt's military and security services are looking for, some analysts argue, is Hosni Mubarak II -- a leader who will preserve the Camp David accord with Israel and the U.S. military aid that comes with it, maintain relations with the United States and Europe, and continue medical, housing and other benefits for military officers.
"The security services, the army, basically are interested in maintaining the status quo," Cook said, adding that Gamal Mubarak and his allies are said to be building relations with senior officers to overcome his perceived handicap of not having served in the military.
The ruling party is a third constituency vital for the next president.
Since taking control of the party's policy committee, Mubarak has helped push through initiatives expanding the party's powers and blocking opposition challengers. Among the changes was a constitutional amendment adopted this spring banning religious political groups.
That helped shut out the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition movement, in June elections for parliament's upper house after the group's strong showing in 2005 elections for the lower house.
Across the Middle East, the sons who assumed power in the 1990s and earlier this decade did so while promising greater freedoms than their fathers allowed.
"It never happens," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. "People always think, 'He uses the Internet and he speaks good English and therefore he won't be like his parents,' but it never seems to work out that way," Lynch said by telephone.
At the youth conference where Gamal Mubarak spoke, held last month at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, he sounded much like his father -- stressing stability rather than democratic reforms.
"Here in Egypt we are enjoying peace and security, and that is why we are moving forward in progress and change," he said.
The forum was convened by Suzanne Mubarak and gathered mostly middle-class and upper-class young Egyptians. One of the young women grilling Gamal Mubarak from the audience wore a Rolex on the arm she raised to hold the microphone.
Organizers hope such events will help rally Egypt's upper class, as the Muslim Brotherhood has rallied Egypt's poor, an official with the government said, speaking on condition he not be identified.
"There's nothing wrong with having haves and have-nots," the official said, adding that the affluent young needed help overcoming their "shame" at coming from educated, cultured and well-off families.
Seeing Gamal Mubarak left some of them unconvinced.
"I think he has to reveal to us what he can do and what is the significant thing he has as a person," Noha Ahmed, a 26-year-old with a master's degree, said after Mubarak spoke. "We all need to feel if he's going to do it, then it's his own effort."