In power for more than two decades, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at 75 is increasingly looking to his 39-year-old son Gamal (Jimmy) to succeed him at the helm of power. These days, the elder Mubarak spends less than two hours a day at his desk. Mubarak Junior, who became the head of a powerful policymaking secretariat in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) last year, is at his elbow, being groomed to take up the slack.
Most Egyptians know very little about Jimmy, save for his reputation as a savvy businessman who owes his fortune to sweetheart deals and graft that are part and parcel of a favorite-son standing in a country where corruption is endemic. It is also conventional wisdom in Egypt for an elder son to set his sights on taking over from his father in high office. Jimmy and his cronies are passing the word on the Egyptian street – and particularly among business leaders, intellectuals and Muslim clerics — that the son-also-rises succession scenario fits snugly into Washington’s game plan for a post-Hosni Egypt.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and Cairo report that young Mubarak would be well advised to get off his high camel. The White House, it appears, has not completely signed off on the elder Mubarak’s succession plan. This is despite Jimmy’s frequent appearances in Washington for self-invited swings around top political, business and intelligence circles and well-distributed assurances that the transfer of power will be fast and smooth.
“The Bush administration knows Jimmy Mubarak is a smart business operator and is also aware of his political aspirations,” a senior US government source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly. “But we don’t know enough about his stamina or how he will respond to personal, political, military or economic crises when left on his own – out from under his father’s protective wing.”
According to the source, Washington these days handles Cairo with extreme care. On the one hand, it is concerned to preserve the beneficial US-Egyptian strategic and intelligence relationship; on the other, Americans in close touch with Egyptian officials have a sense that both Mubaraks and top decision-makers in Cairo are a bit out of touch with reality.
A policy paper published in Washington several months ago determined: “Cairo’s main problem is the Egyptian leadership’s refusal to accept the country’s progressive decline in recent years as a key power in the Middle East, the Arab world and Africa – and that goes equally for both Mubaraks.”
As Hosni Mubarak’s star dims, the American writers point out, Egypt’s economic problems worsen. Above all, the soaring birthrate and fertile plain density are spinning out of control. But because of the Egyptian ruling class’s obsessive sense of history and arrogant national self-image, members of the Mubarak administration behave rationally and realistically only up to decision time. “At that moment, they forget their country is no longer the power it was and act on the false premise of Egypt’s innate superiority. As a result, they end up making the wrong decisions on the economy and foreign relations, often making a bad situation worse.”
On numerous occasions, American officials have gently made this point to Mubarak and his son, the Washington source said. “But both always shot back that we Americans have no understanding of the reality and mentality of the ‘Egyptian street’. Of late, any discussion between us on such issues as Islamic terrorism has wound up on that intractable note.”
The US administration has been impressed by young Mubarak’s political machine and the efficiency with which he has geared it up to prepare his way to the presidency – but there are still reservations. “He has surrounded himself with a group of young, talented people who are willing to work hard for him,” the Washington source said. “But they are operating on the premise that they will be rewarded by an easy slide into well-padded jobs to become the backbone of the coming regime. But what if Jimmy’s plans face setbacks and they need to fight for their goal – and not just in the political arena? Can they tough it out? Will they stick with him through thick and thin?”
The congress of the ruling National Democratic Party that took place this week was a demonstration of the Mubarak junior’s team in action. It provided him and his young following with a profile boost and the chance of impressing on the party the need for broad reforms – but also pointers to unforeseen hurdles ahead of their upward climb.
Jimmy emerged as the unquestioned strongman of the ruling party. He managed to get many of his candidates elected to key positions by means of a device revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Cairo: Young Mubarak’s strategy team did some digging and discovered that more than half of the 500 party delegates had never served in the Egyptian military. They exploited this by pushing through a resolution barring delegates who had missed out on military service. On the spot, some 30 were forced to step down and make room for the same number of Jimmy’s supporters. With this broom, he will have attained a majority in the NDP’s ruling body by November.
Gamal used another stratagem to remove the next obstacle from his path. Under the Egyptian constitution, the Speaker of the Egyptian parliament, Fathi Sorour, automatically steps into the shoes of an incapacitated president. The president’s son, so close to the glittering prize of the presidency, needed to deprive Sorour of the means to beat him to target. The military service qualification trick did not apply. While most top Egyptian officials never served in the armed forces, the wily Sorour was harder to pin down. He kept himself off the population register until he turned 30, the cutoff age for military conscription, and so stayed clear of the draft.
Jimmy’s team came up with a last-minute amendment to the party’s statutes:
Delegates who were 35 or older at the end of the 1967 Middle East war are no longer eligible for party office.
Lo and behold, Sorour was exactly 35 in 1967.
No fool, the Speaker saw that his time was up. Taking the dignified way out, he announced his intention of resigning in the near future.
The road to the presidency is still far from clear. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Egyptian experts point that the president still has a lot to do before bringing his son into position. First, he needs to carry out a cabinet reshuffle, maneuver prime minister Atef Ebeid – not a big fan of young Jimmy – into resigning and then pack the new government with his son’s followers.
That will bring him head on against Egypt’s powerful defense minister, Mohammed Tantawi. If he decides to adhere to office, neither Mubarak has enough clout in the military or intelligence services to challenge him. Tantawi cherishes his own ambitions to gain the presidency but time is on the side of the younger Mubarak. The defense chief has been very ill over the past year and may not feel up to a power struggle with a younger rival.
“For the time being,” the senior Washington sources remarked to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, “everything is going Jimmy’s way. But again, how will he stand up to real trouble? No one here or even in Cairo has the answer.”