Power in the Middle East: The new Pharaohs

Ruler of Egypt for 24 years, President Hosni Mubarak is about to embrace democracy in the form of a presidential election.But is his apparent enthusiasm for reform merely a smokescreen to hide his dynastic ambitions? Anne Penketh reports from Cairo
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Cairo has two distinctive faces. There is Giza, home to the pyramids of ancient Egypt and the Sphinx that has cast its inscrutable gaze over the city for 4,500 years. And there is Heliopolis, the jewel of modern times with its early 20th century Western architecture.

Cairo has two distinctive faces. There is Giza, home to the pyramids of ancient Egypt and the Sphinx that has cast its inscrutable gaze over the city for 4,500 years. And there is Heliopolis, the jewel of modern times with its early 20th century Western architecture.

In the twilight of his life, President Hosni Mubarak, 77, is trying to reconcile the old with the new as he sets out on a journey of reform. So it is probably not by accident that his son, Gamal Mubarak, receives his guests in leafy Heliopolis, known as New Cairo, or Masr al-Jedida to Egyptians.

This 42-year-old banker, who now holds an important position within his father's ruling party, has become a symbol of modern Egypt, even though in his self-deprecating way he would probably deny it. When President Mubarak made his surprise announcement three months ago that he would allow multi-party elections for the first time in Egypt's 7,000-year history, the entire country thought that he was preparing the ground for his son to succeed him.

The Middle East already gave birth to one such political dynasty, when Bashar Assad succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, after the Syrian president's death. As with Hafez Assad, an entire generation of Egyptians have known no other leader than Hosni Mubarak, a former air force officer who has ruled the country under stringent emergency laws in force since 1981.

But while the Egyptian public remains convinced that Gamal is preparing to step into the shoes of his father, party and government officials - and Gamal Mubarak himself - are taking pains to nip the rumours in the bud. They suggest that there would be resistance from the old guard of the National Democratic Party, and nobody knows how the military, which still calls the shots in Egypt, would react. "I can't say the NDP is gearing up to back his [Mubarak's] son," commented one senior Egyptian official.

But the rumours refuse to die down. According to the latest report, denied by officials here, Mr Mubarak's half-Welsh wife, Suzanne, is actively pushing her son - a tall, slim and balding version of his father - into the political limelight so that she can bask in the reflected glory of having nurtured two Egyptian leaders. The Mubaraks' elder son, Alaa, is a businessman and has made it clear that he has no desire to enter politics.

The glamorous Mrs Mubarak, whose mother was a Welsh nurse, is no stranger to public life as head of the Suzanne Mubarak International Movement for Women and Peace, which provides ample photo opportunities for the Egyptian First Lady. A dinner that she hosted for women on Monday night in Cairo lured guests from an official UN function, a UN seminar on the Middle East, much to the embarrassment of the foreign ministry. She was the one who escorted Laura Bush around Cairo and Alexandria during a visit earlier this month in which Mrs Bush praised Hosni Mubarak's "bold and wise first step" towards democracy.

The fallout from that trip is still going on: the Education Minister, Kamelia Hegazi, was forced to make a statement in parliament on Monday to deny the government had bussed in students to an Alexandria school to impress Mrs Bush. Egypt, which has a feisty, free press, is extremely sensitive to any suggestion of kow-towing to America, despite the $2bn (£1.1bn) received from the US each year.

During a three-hour conversation with journalists from the UK at the military's Sporting Club in Heliopolis, Gamal Mubarak dismissed as "rubbish" any suggestion that Mr Mubarak's announcement of a referendum on constitutional reform stemmed from a request from George Bush. Such reports, he said, were having a negative impact on domestic opinion, which is increasingly anti-American as a result of the Iraq war.

As he answered questions on all aspects of the Egyptian reforms, he only showed exasperation when he was asked about his political intentions. "I have made it clear that I am not putting myself forward," he said.

He stressed that when he entered politics in 2000 following his return to Cairo from London, the President had made it clear that "the scenarios people are trying to present in our own political structure have nothing to do with reality". What is more, with the change in the Egyptian constitution which will allow more than one candidate to run in presidential elections, "this notion should be put to bed".

But the notion has not been put to bed because of the restrictions being placed on parties in the election, which will mean that only candidates put up by the NDP or by recognised parties can stand - thus excluding the popular but banned Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from fielding a candidate. Egyptian and foreign analysts say that President Mubarak's game plan seems to be that the reform of the electoral law will provide a springboard for his son to run for president in 2011.

They add that it would not necessarily be a bad thing: Mubarak Jnr is described as "serious" about change, and is credited with bringing into government a "dream team" of 40-somethings who have instituted economic reforms that are rolling back the legacy of the state-controlled economy dating from the Nasser era. "But he's going to have to be a real politician if he wants to emerge," said a Western diplomat.

All the signs of political grooming are there: Gamal Mubarak, who worked in London after being educated at the American University in Cairo, has been spearheading the ruling party's reform programme since he returned. His policy post has taken him across the country to "town hall" meetings as he explains the government's plans for change. All in full view of Egyptian state television, of course.

Gamal Mubarak recognises that sons succeeding their fathers in the Middle East is an "issue" because of the general unease about inherited power. He also jokes that it happens in democracies, such as the two Bush presidencies in the US. But he sticks to the line that at this point, he does not even know whether his father has decided to run for another term. And government officials point out that in the next presidential elections in six years, nobody can predict how many candidates will secure the necessary backing to run.

In the election in September, predicted one senior official, Egyptians "will not ask the President to leave his seat because they love him. Other parties are very weak. For this reason I think that our President has no challenge." Grassroots support for opening up the political system does seem to exist, as the debate gathers steam in the press. Until now, discussion of reform has been confined to the living rooms of Egypt's "chattering classes".

Ayman Nour, the leader of El Ghad (Tomorrow), a liberal party, says he can sense that "Egyptians are very thirsty for change" after 24 years of political stagnation. "We are not pulling the Egyptians after us, we are late," he says, comfortably ensconced in his eighth-floor penthouse flat in Cairo again after spending 43 days in jail. Mr Nour is one of the few opposition candidates who would meet the criteria for challenging Mr Mubarak in September, although nobody credits him with national support. The fact that Condoleezza Rice called on the Egyptian government to release him from jail, after his arrest in January for allegedly forging signatures in support of his campaign, is likely to lose him votes, if anything.

If Egyptian officials are to be believed, the Americans have told the government that they don't mind who wins the elections - the presidential poll is followed in November by parliamentary elections - as long as they are democratic. Although strenuously denying accusations of organising a "sham" election, the government makes no secret of the fact that it has no intention of allowing Islamic fundamentalists to gain more than the foothold they already have in parliament by fielding candidates as independents. They now have 15 MPs in the 454-seat parliament, where the NDP holds 90 per cent of the seats.

Mohamed Morsy, one of the Muslim Brotherhood MPs who acts as its spokesman, said that if a free and fair election for parliament were to be held, his party would obtain 100 seats, or "20 to 25 per cent" of the vote.

Why is the government afraid to legalise the Muslim Brotherhood, which now has a new generation of pragmatic leaders such as Mr Morsy whose mobile phone has an Islamic ringtone of All praise to Allah? "We're not afraid of anybody," retorts Ahmed Nazeif, the Prime Minister, a technocrat who brought in the country's first national computerised ID scheme. "What we are not allowing them to do is create an entity that is based on religion. It has a history of violence. We're not sure about how they feel about democracy - if they are given a chance to run a government, they might not give us the type of democracy that we would all like to see. We are a secular country, and we want to remain a secular country."

A senior official made it clear that the government would open the system as it sees fit, and no further. In the first Bush term, "he was against terror, and we were with him. Bush II is about this democracy thing, and we are not with him." As Egypt moves forward with its political reforms, however, it remains unclear whether the authorities will be able to keep the lid on mounting pressure for change from the street, although they say they are confident that the gradual and controlled reform will succeed. They also reject any comparison with the situation in such countries as Ukraine, which produced a popular uprising following fraudulent presidential elections. The government is taking no chances: Egypt's electoral process will continue with the full force of the emergency laws left in place, ostensibly aimed at "terrorists" but in fact invoked since Mr Mubarak's announcement in March to round up more than 900 protesters.

The proposed reforms have delighted the members of the small Kefaya (Enough) movement, led by George Ishak, a 66-year-old retired high school teacher who has staged a lone campaign for democratic change since Mr Mubarak came to power. The Kefaya movement, which he founded in 2003 with a group of seven friends, has a simple motto: Mubarak must go. Most opposition parties boycotted the referendum on amending the constitution because it did not go far enough in allowing a challenge to Mr Mubarak. Despite their call - which was not publicised on state television, watched by most Egyptians - the turnout was officially put at 51 per cent and produced an 83 per cent "yes" vote in favour of limited multi-candidate presidential elections.

Opinions differ as to why the ageing Mr Mubarak, who has previously ensured his own survival by organising referendums on his presidential terms, decided to bring in the reforms at this point. Was it a ploy to open the way for his son, or out of weakness, to save the ruling party from collapse? There are also questions over his health, after he collapsed in parliament in November 2003.

What is certain is that the push for democratisation from Washington reinforced the process already under way in Cairo.

The government's main concern will be to ensure that there is at least a measure of competition in the presidential election so that Egypt can claim to have held a legitimate poll, in the absence of international monitors.

And Gamal Mubarak is already looking beyond this year's elections. "We will continue to reach out, despite some of the difficulties that have started to surface," he promises. "We're hoping that the election will send out a convincing message this is a serious process of change."