Unquestionably, Egypt’s intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman is a powerful man, if only by virtue of his control over all his country’s security and intelligence services. In this capacity, he also supervises the interrogations of al Qaeda extremists, so gaining oversight of a key branch of the US war on terror. The intelligence chief is also well-received in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where his diplomatic skills are appreciated regardless of what may become of Sharon’s plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip. When President Hosni Mubarak was first reported ill last week, Suleiman’s name rose quickly to many lips in Cairo as a leading candidate to succeed the ailing president should his condition deteriorate.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources affirm that after he flew to Germany for treatment, Mubarak’s situation took an unexpected turn for the worse. The news Thursday, June 24, that doctors at the Orthozentrum private hospital in Munich would administer a new drug instead of surgery to treat the 76-year-old leader’s slipped disc was part of his inner circle’s cover-up of his real condition. For a simple back operation, he did not need to travel to Germany. The announcement that the drug was slow-acting and would keep the president away for some time was meant to head off questions down the line about his long stay in hospital.
Mainly to disguise the seriousness of his condition, Egyptian propaganda tried to conceal the fact that his son and putative heir, Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak, traveled with him to Munich. Our Middle East sources report that last weekend, just hours before Mubarak’s departure, Egyptian officials close to the family were still arguing about Gemal’s proper place – by his father’s bedside or at home in Cairo ready for any emergencies. Since Mubarak, the younger, holds no official position, it was decided he would not be missed and should go with his father.
Security and appearances were key considerations. On the first count, it would be easier to protect Gemal in Munich than edgy Cairo; on the second, he would be better off putting some distance between himself and the succession process back home. The image of a dutiful son preoccupied with tending to his sick father would do him no harm.
But if worst came to the worst and the president died in Munich, Gemal was assured by the Mubarak faction in the Egyptian leadership that he would be greeted upon his return home by a top-level government military reception committee ready at Cairo airport to plead with him to assume his father’s mantle for the good of the Egyptian people.
But things have not gone as smoothly as the Mubarak circle had hoped. The German doctors’ failure to arrest his decline has injected suspense into the well-prepared quiet succession. Other factions have stepped into the breach with ambitions of their own.
Monday, June 21, the ruling NPD party’s nominations committee headed by Safwat al-Sharif held a stormy session that failed to agree on Mubarak’s successor. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that committee members came under heavy pressure, mainly from defense minister Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi and the speaker of the Egyptian people’s assembly, Fathi Sorour, to hold off a decision until Mubarak’s true condition was clarified. Tantawi’s endorsement is crucial for guaranteeing the military’s backing for a potential candidate. Sorour’s support is equally decisive. Under the Egyptian constitution, the Parliamentary Speaker steps in as acting president if the incumbent is incapacitated or dies, serving until the next election.
Mubarak’s supporters had been discussed amending this constitutional clause from last year but never got around to it. All the other contenders, including Gamal Mubarak, have therefore missed the boat. Sorour could get in by default. Rushing through an amendment while Mubarak is hospitalized overseas would not go down well with the Egyptian public.
Tantawi, whom ill health forced to abandon his own ambitions, would like to see an Egyptian general in the presidency, or, at the very least, guarantees for the military’s standing in return for supporting a civilian candidate.
Sharif's mismanagement of the supposedly cut and dried succession process was the reason why Mubarak put in a telephone call from Munich to fire the man long regarded as Egypt’s fourth most powerful figure. The Cairo propaganda machine emphasized that the ailing president informed Sharif the decision to dismiss him was his alone and Gamal had no part in it.
It was the first time Mubarak Junior’s name had been openly mentioned in relation to the power struggle in Egypt.
Sharif’s sacking gave Egypt’s political system, staid and settled for many years, a strong jolt comparable to shock waves in any capital when a president fires a top adviser. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, political chaos ensued. Some members of the top leadership declared Mubarak must be persuaded to appoint a long-term replacement rather than a stopgap to calm things down. His delegation of limited powers to prime minister Atef Obeid on the morning of his departure for Munich was clearly not enough. Mubarak, himself a vice president who took over the presidency in 1981, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, never appointed a vice president, although constitutionally required to do so.
He may well delegate provisional powers to Suleiman, entrusting him with settling the upheaval in Cairo and pushing through the constitutional changes for Gemal’s appointment as heir to the presidency. However, unless Mubarak recovers, the presidential race is wide open. Suleiman may find himself sitting pretty in the presidential palace with little inclination to vacate it.