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A Mubarak Dynasty?

It's looking more and more likely. But the United States can still push for democratic reforms.

12:00 AM, Jun 13, 2007 • By JEFFREY AZARVA
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ON MAY 2nd, four days after his much-scrutinized wedding, the youngest son of 79-year-old Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak made international headlines again. In a rare interview, Gamal Mubarak, a deputy secretary-general in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), denied reports that he would succeed his aging father as president.

In Egypt, rumors of tawreeth, Arabic for a hereditary succession of power, are nothing new. The controversy over who will become just the fourth president to rule Egypt since 1954 traces its roots back more than a quarter century. President Mubarak has refused to appoint a vice-president since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat thrust him into power. Egypt's constitution notwithstanding, the office's vacancy has muddled the rules of succession: upon their deaths, both of Mubarak's predecessors bequeathed power to their incumbent deputy. Thus, while his reluctance to tap a second-in-command has always puzzled Egyptians, the decision has only aroused suspicion that he is "grooming" his son for the job.

Gamal's foray into Egyptian politics began in 2000 with an appointment to the NDP's general secretariat. Since the appointment--which came just months after Syria's Bashar al-Assad rose to power following his father's death--whispers of a Damascus-style transition have become commonplace. While the Mubarak family has rejected such a handoff, talk in Egypt is cheap.

The former investment banker's steady political rise stands in stark contrast to the official rhetoric. His promotion to the chairmanship of the NDP's policy committee in 2002--a position Secretary-General Safwat Sherif has called the "party's beating heart and mind"--and a cabinet shakeup in 2004 that installed several of his closest associates have both fueled greater speculation among Egypt's opposition. Repeated disavowals by the father and son have done little to allay concerns.

The Mubarak regime has employed other means to facilitate a political inheritance. Though Washington heralded the regime's 2005 amendment to Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution as a step toward democratic reform, the legislation was mostly window-dressing. The new law allowed opposition members to compete in Egypt's first multi-candidate election that September, but criteria for future candidacy became onerous. With many expecting Hosni to hand Gamal the reins when his fifth six-year term expires in 2011, the regime's message was clear: should the NDP trot out Gamal in the next election, no viable opposition candidate would be allowed to stand.

But the success of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates in the December 2005 parliamentary race accelerated the regime's game plan. As health concerns fueled speculation that Mubarak might exit the stage sooner rather than later, the specter of a Brotherhood resurgence was used to eschew U.S. pressure for reform and give greater impetus to an orderly succession in the near-term. Here, Mubarak has succeeded. Islamist gains have all but eroded Washington's opposition to a dynastic change that is bound to keep U.S.-Egyptian strategic relations intact.

It is within this context that Gamal has raised his public profile over the past year. In May 2006, despite holding no official portfolio, he met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley during a private White House visit. Even as the administration pressed him on Egypt's lack of political freedom, his pro-business, Western-oriented outlook appeared to win them over. Four months later, President George W. Bush touted Gamal's cadre as "young reformers" who "understand the promise and difficulty of democracy."

Beyond talk of economic liberalization, though, it is a good bet that Gamal and his cohorts do not aspire to the same sort of political reform the Bush administration envisions for Egypt. On September 18, a week after Bush's comment, Mubarak fils stood front and center at the NDP's annual conference and defied Washington's vision of a "new Middle East." In a clear swipe at Bush's freedom agenda, he declared, "We will not accept initiatives made abroad." In March, he played an instrumental role in passing thirty-four constitutional amendments that Amnesty International described as the "most serious undermining of human rights safeguards in Egypt since the state of emergency was re-imposed in 1981." The rollback will cement his political standing.