as whispers of the president’s ill-health spread. It was widely rumoured that, shocked by the death of his favourite grandson from illness in May, Mr Mubarak had a mild stroke. He was not seen in public for a week. When he reappeared, he looked frailer. When Barack Obama came to Cairo a fortnight later to deliver his momentous speech to the Muslim world, Egypt’s 81-year-old president failed to turn up. More recently, however, he has made an effort to appear at carefully orchestrated public outings. This week he was hobnobbing with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.
There is no clear succession, yet the issue has nagged Egyptians (and foreigners who watch the Arab world’s most populous country, 80m-strong) for a good decade. After heading the air force, Mr Mubarak became vice-president in 1975, then succeeded to the top job after Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists after making peace with Israel. Since then, he has refused to drop any hint about the succession, presumably because he thinks that by doing so he would set off an ugly power struggle that could lead to his own speedy retirement.
President Mubarak has never appointed a vice-president, which some constitutional lawyers deem illegal. In the case of his death or permanent incapacity, Parliament’s speaker becomes an interim president for up to 60 days but cannot then run for president. If the speaker is for some reason unavailable, the chairman of the Constitutional Council takes the interim presidency under the same terms. The constitution cannot be changed nor the government dismissed during this period.
For four of his five six-year terms, Mr Mubarak has been nominated by Parliament as the sole candidate, then confirmed in a popular referendum. But in 2005, under American pressure, Mr Mubarak brought in a constitutional amendment to let a multiplicity of candidates run for president in direct elections, though they had to be put forward by legally recognised political parties. Official results gave him a laughable 89% of the vote against nearly 8% for his main challenger, Ayman Nour, who was later sentenced to five years in prison on dubious fraud charges.
The names of the favourites to succeed Mr Mubarak have been bandied about for years, though neither of the two front-runners has ever openly said he wanted the top job. Mr Mubarak’s son Gamal, who runs the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), has won the support of businessmen for promoting economic reforms since 2004. The other main contender is General Omar Suleiman, who has run the intelligence service since 1991. Involved in every regional conundrum, such as efforts to reunite the Palestinians and bring them to a peace deal with Israel, he is generally admired by his counterparts. Other names are occasionally aired, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, who since 1997 has headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog; he is due to step down in November. Another is Amr Moussa, a popular former foreign minister of Egypt who since 2001 has run the 22-member Arab League.
But in the end it usually comes down to Gamal versus Omar. Egyptians are divided over who is likely to prevail and who would run the country better. The younger Mubarak, at 46, has established himself as heir apparent by drawing new blood into the NDP and backing technocratic reform. A former investment banker, he is more relaxed than his father at smart gatherings such as the annual forum in Davos. He surrounds himself with some of Egypt’s richest people. Constitutional amendments passed in 2007 restrict eligibility for presidential elections. As a result, some say that no other candidate or political force will be able to oppose him as the ruling party’s likely candidate.
But critics say Mr Mubarak junior lacks a popular touch and that an inheritance of power would not be welcomed by most Egyptians or by the armed forces—and they have been the regime’s backbone since the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952. “If [President] Mubarak disappears, there will be a political vacuum,” says Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a former friend of the younger Mubarak who has become an opposition politician and prominent commentator. “The military is the only institution able to fill that vacuum, and there will be tanks on the street.”
In this view, General Suleiman, aged 73, would become president in a constitutional coup, which Mr Harb hopes might then prompt a transition to more democratic politics. But Mr Suleiman’s own relations with senior military men are not always clear. Military politics is murky. Succession in each Arab state seems to follow its own rules and, after Mr Mubarak dies, a power-grabbing junta cannot be ruled out.
The succession debate has spilled into Facebook and Twitter, where young Egyptians row over the candidates’ merits. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the only strong political force outside the regime’s control, is divided over whether it should stand fiercely against the inheritance of power.
The uncertainty is again making a lot of Egyptians nervous. Speculation is rising that the older Mubarak may step down before the next presidential election in 2011. Every political development in the country, however banal, tends to be seen in the light of the succession. It hinders the steady running of the country, and hampers a healthy debate, even within the confines of the ruling establishment. It is bad for Egypt.