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Mubarak Scion's Rise Fuels Talk of Successor

The 39-year-old businessman has developed a popular following in Egypt, particularly among young professionals.

November 03, 2002|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — With Egypt's leadership composed of men in their 60s and 70s whose careers date from Gamal Abdel Nasser's era of pan-Arab socialism, the political ascendancy of a reform-minded, 39-year-old businessman has Cairo abuzz that the next president may now be serving his apprenticeship.

The speculation is particularly intriguing because the former Bank of America executive is Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of President Hosni Mubarak, 74, whose fourth six-year term expires in 2005 but who has given no hint of his plans.

A former air force commander, Mubarak took office in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat and has never named a vice president or groomed an heir.

Both Mubaraks dismiss talk of succession, saying Egypt is neither a monarchy nor a dynasty. Most Egyptians won't even discuss the issue because conjecture about the first family is verboten here.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a human rights advocate, believes that he recently was sent to prison for seven years not because his think tank received unapproved funds for election monitoring, as charged, but because of his comments about succession, his friends say.

"Succession is a red line Egyptians won't cross in conversation," said a Cairo academic, requesting anonymity. "But I think Gamal is playing the game very well and I wouldn't be surprised to see him take over. A lot of people say, why not? He couldn't be worse than an army general or someone from the intelligence service."

Affable and handsome, Gamal Mubarak has a master's degree from American University in Cairo. He worked for Bank of America in Cairo and London and later set up a private equity firm, MedInvest, which has $100 million in assets. Keen not to be seen as abusing his status as the president's son, he maintains a low profile and does not raise funds for his firm, leaving that responsibility to a Cairo bank, EFG-Hermes. The fund has put money into high-tech Egyptian companies.

In September, Gamal Mubarak was pushed into the political limelight at the general congress of the National Democratic Party, Egypt's entrenched party that holds 388 of the 444 seats in parliament and is generally considered rife with corruption, patronage and old guard conservatism. In his newly created position as secretary of policies, Mubarak in effect became responsible for shaping the party's general policies at home and abroad.

Mubarak, who as a businessman works out of a modestly furnished office in a nondescript concrete building north of Cairo, in Heliopolis, caught the attention of Egyptians several years ago with the founding of the Future Generation Foundation, an organization focusing on housing, employment and other problems affecting the young.

He has also called for social and economic reform and the need for increased democracy to bring young Egyptians into the decision-making process. For a while he considered setting up an opposition party to challenge the NDP.

"I don't sense any immediacy to the succession issue because President Mubarak can run for another term if he chooses," a Western political analyst said. "Certainly Gamal is in position to be a serious player, but I doubt President Mubarak has made a decision yet. He's aware that no one here wants Egypt to be another Syria" [where the constitution was amended in 2000 so Bashar Assad could succeed his deceased father].

Gamal Mubarak has developed a popular following, particularly among young professionals, because of calls for long-overdue reforms. With Egypt still in a state of emergency as a result of Sadat's assassination 21 years ago, most people have grown tired of excessive government controls, inadequate social services and a stagnant economy unable to provide jobs for the 600,000 entering the workforce every year.

Egypt was particularly hard hit by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, losing $1 billion in tourism and seeing a decrease in Suez Canal transit fees and the weakening of the Egyptian pound, the government says. The stock market has fallen 70%, and unemployment tops 20%. Egypt has spent $7 billion, or one-third its hard currency reserves, trying to shore up the pound over the last three years.

If the younger Mubarak, who has no military experience, does indeed have presidential aspirations, he could face an obstacle with the generals. They have no official role in politics but remain politically influential.

Egypt has twice seen smooth transfers of power from a president to a vice president: to Sadat in 1970 when Nasser died of a heart attack, and to Mubarak when Sadat was killed by Islamic extremists in 1981. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all came from the military ranks.

Under the 1971 constitution, if Mubarak were to die with no vice president in place, the speaker of parliament would serve as interim president. Within 60 days, parliament would hold an election, with a two-thirds majority required to choose a president.

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Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this report.

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