Egypt's presidential transition has been brought forward since Hosni Mubarak's mysterious ailment was diagnosed as untreatable by a Paris hospital, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources reveal.
Last month, debkafile disclosed that the Egyptian president had used talks with Nicolas Sarkozy in the French capital last month to disguise his admittance to a French military hospital for an unspecified complex surgical procedure unrelated to the back surgery he underwent in Germany in 2004.
Despite the complete news blackout, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources now confirm that Mubarak did indeed check into the hospital near Paris on July 22. But after preliminary tests, surgery was canceled and the next day he was on his way home to Cairo.
While his ailment remains unknown, our sources report that the transfer of power to the president's son and heir, Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak began there and then.
This is a slow and agonizing process that will spread over several months. A Western source in Cairo familiar with the workings of the presidency estimates that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), run by Mubarak's loyal Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif, will soon nominate the 42-year old Gemal for the presidency ahead of elections to be held as soon as mid-2010.
“The situation in Cairo is difficult”, says our source. For all of his 28 years in office since 1981, Mubarak has always run the show. He has never appointed a deputy president. Prime minister Ahmed Nazif (who has a reputation for honesty and a modern outlook – his name means “clean”) is an economics guru and never made a political, diplomatic, military or internal security decision. Even today, Mubarak handles all decision-making in person but because of his failing health, many issues go by the board.
NDP branches have been summoned to meetings in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities over the past week, our sources report, to get set for organizing a campaign that will guarantee Gemal Mubarak's election.
Jimmy's first obstacle: A reformist leader
Mubarak Jr. has drummed up on his own behalf the backing of the military, led by minister of defense Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The intelligence services, headed by intelligence minister Omar Suleiman, have also swung behind him. The military elite were won over by the promise of a vice presidency.
According to the Egyptian constitution, when a president resigns or dies in office, the Speaker of Parliament holds power for an interim 60 days during which the factions must name their candidates for the presidency which are then endorsed by a parliamentary panel. The incumbent in both posts, Dr. Ahmed Fathi Sorour, is a close friend of the Mubaraks.
But Gemal still has a rocky path to travel before he can clinch the presidency.
One major obstacle is the reformist campaigner Ayman Abd El Aziz Nour, 45, a former member of Parliament and chairman of the El Ghad party, which he established to promote a liberal democratic platform with a strong accent on human rights.
As El Ghad leader, Nour has campaigned vigorously for constitutional reform, calling for the president's powers to be curtailed and multiple candidates to be allowed to run for election. On Jan. 29, 2005, during an election year, he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested, an action that was criticized by world governments as a step back for Egyptian democracy.
Three months later, a group of US and European lawmakers obtained his release, whereupon Nour threw his hat in the ring for the presidency.
In the last elections in 2008, al Ghad netted 15 percent of the poll in the face of constant harassment by Mubarak's henchmen. Young Mubarak now fears that if Nour runs against him, he could end up with 25-30 percent of the vote and pose a strong challenge to the ruling party's grip on power.
Jimmy's second obstacle: The Muslim Brotherhood
His second obstacle is posed by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood whose young generation has been emboldened by Ayman Nour's success to seek an end to the status quo and go for the top slot.
The Brotherhood, which is Egypt's biggest party, had a deal with President Mubarak and the NDP which allotted them seats in parliament in return for an understanding to abstain from contesting the presidential election.
This status was an improvement on the two decades in which the Brotherhood was outlawed altogether. But as Hosni's powers decline, the young Brethren see their chance of upsetting the status quo and running their own candidate for president. Their demands have become more vociferous in recent weeks since the Brotherhood's veteran leader Muhammad Mahdi al-Aqef announced he was retiring from political life.
Given these obstacles to a smooth transition from father to son, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Middle East sources note that very few Western – or even seasoned Middle East observers – are prepared to look ahead and offer an educated assessment of Egypt and the region in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.
For now, they see the Land of the Nile entering a period of factional strife between Jimmy Mubarak's mainstream NDP, the reformist Ayman Nour's al-Ghad party and the Muslim bloc headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which may yet contest the presidency with an Islamic candidate.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources disclose that Gemal Mubarak is preparing to travel to Washington as early as next week to gain the Obama administration's support for his candidacy.