Not long before the pivotal conference of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party opened this week, a four-sided billboard appeared in one of Cairo's main squares. It bore the portraits of the country's Olympic heroes, along with one of Gamal Mubarak, son of President Hosni Mubarak.
The younger Mubarak's picture was removed after immediate complaints from political opposition groups. But the issues underlying the controversy remained: Was Hosni Mubarak, in power for 23 years, going to stay on? And was he setting up his son to succeed him?
The answers are important not only to Egypt, where rising prices and deep unemployment have stimulated calls for economic as well as political reform, but overseas as well. The Bush administration regards Egypt, an ally and the Middle East's most populous country, as ripe for change -- and possibly an eventual example of the kind of democratic change President Bush has vowed to promote in the region.
The three-day ruling party conference, which ended Thursday, went a long way toward answering the first question. In effect, the National Democratic Party endorsed Mubarak for a fifth six-year term beginning next year.
The party, which acts as an amplifier for Mubarak's policies, agreed to keep in place key rules that underpin his reign, including 23-year-old emergency laws that limit political activity and a system of choosing the president in which the parliament -- dominated by Mubarak's party -- endorses a single candidate whom voters are asked to approve.
The party declined to take up opposition calls for term limits and direct popular election of the president from among competing candidates. Nor did it significantly ease rules that effectively block participation of new political parties.
"It should come as no surprise that we did not deal with the issue" of term limits, Gamal Mubarak told reporters Thursday, explaining that it was not a priority. "We should not reduce talk of reform to only narrow issues. We are not thinking of changing the constitution."
The conference did, however, reduce the time needed for parties to register, and it added legal experts to the Party Committee, which rules on the fitness of new parties to enter politics. Opposition groups want the committee to be abolished.
On economic matters, the party approved cutting taxes and customs duties.
Opposition leaders said they were resigned to a Hosni Mubarak candidacy next year. "I doubt he can be stopped," said Sameh Naguib, one of the founders of the 20th March Movement, a coalition of political groups and nongovernmental organizations that called for Mubarak's ouster and open elections. "We are used to disappointment. The difference now is that Mubarak is 76 years old. Something has got to give. The people will not accept a dynasty."
The outcome of the conference reflected Mubarak's rejection of U.S. pressure to democratize, which he has described as interference in internal affairs and damaging to efforts to fight Muslim militants, a policy he says he shares with the Bush administration.
"Looking into the problem of democracy does not come as a result of external pressure," Mohammed Kamal, a member of the ruling party's policy committee, told reporters at the opening of the conference.
In a recent speech to the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, Gamal Mubarak also indicated that U.S. pressure was unwelcome. "Questions have been raised as to whether there is a desire to impose some form of supervision over the Middle East, or even return to a newer version of the colonial region," he said.
The question of Gamal Mubarak's future role, which took on new urgency during a year in which his father underwent back surgery in Germany and appeared infrequently in public, remains unanswered.
The son flatly denies he is in the running to succeed his father. Asked about inheriting power, he answered sharply, saying, "Clearly, we are against it." And while Egypt's past three presidents -- Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak -- came from the ranks of the military, Gamal Mubarak, 41, worked as an investment banker in London and spent several years with Bank of America before setting up his own investment firm, Medinvest Associates.
Nevertheless, during a 2003 trip to the United States, he met with Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. A recent cabinet shuffle put several of his associates into office and gave rise to theories that Gamal Mubarak is, in effect, serving as his father's vice president.
The newcomers are young and Western-oriented. One, Mahmoud Mohieddin, 39, studied in Britain and heads a new Investment Ministry. Another, Rachid Mohammed Rachid, 49, studied management at Stanford, MIT and Harvard.
At this week's party conference, Gamal Mubarak served as master of ceremonies. On Tuesday, he laid out the conference agenda in a 40-minute speech. State television, which broadcast several sessions, repeatedly trained cameras on him as he sat in the audience leafing through papers.
Naguib, the 20th March Movement founder, said Egypt's various coalitions will hold demonstrations and petition drives to derail Hosni Mubarak's continuation in power.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned from politics but regarded as the country's most influential opposition organization, has joined in the calls for reform.
"We are willing to help push the wheel of reform," said Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group's leader. "In this dictatorship, there can be no change unless the regime wants it."
Even legal parties that hold seats in parliament are chafing under the domination of Mubarak and the National Democratic Party. "Reform won't happen now, but that doesn't mean we stop trying," said Rifat Said, who heads the leftist Tagammu party. "We have no weapons, so we have to move slowly."