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Mubarak's Health Poses Questions About Egypt's Future - 2004-06-22

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in Germany for medical treatment and has designated his Prime Minister to act in his place while he is away. Mr. Mubarak's health problems have generated renewed speculation in Egypt about who will lead the country when the 76-year-old president retires or dies.

Egyptian academics and some opposition party leaders say President Mubarak's health problems underline the need for political change in the country. Egypt has no vice-president and presidential votes in the past two decades have had only Mr. Mubarak on the ballot.

Dia Ideen Dawoud is the head of one of Egypt's opposition political parties, the Nasserite Party.

Mr. Dawoud said that there is an opportunity now for constitutional and legal changes to make Egypt more democratic. He says it is urgent to make changes that would allow for true democracy, not just what he calls "a picture democracy." Mr. Dawoud added that he wants a multi-party system and presidential elections with several competing candidates.

Mr. Dawoud and other opposition members say a major obstacle to civil liberties is the emergency law in place in the country since 1981. The law, which severely limits public demonstrations and allows for quick military trials, has been in place since Mr. Mubarak became president in 1981, after militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat.

Mr. Mubarak, who was Mr. Sadat's vice-president, went on to successfully eradicate militant opposition to his rule.

President Mubarak is regarded as a symbol of stability in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country with 70 million people. But there have been calls for a loosening of the hold on power by his National Democratic Party. Referendums on his rule have been held, but amid widespread accusations of irregularities.

The government says it is in favor of political reform, but slowly. It says reform that comes too quickly could create instability, and provide an opportunity for militants to increase their influence.

Cairo University Political Science Professor Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid says any liberalization of Egypt's political system would have to deal with that possibility, particularly regarding a group called the Muslim Brotherhood.

"There is an agreement that the way the president of the republic is chosen should be changed," he said. "There should be competitive elections for the president. There is also a question of the law of political parties, whether the Muslim Brothers should be, continue to be ignored, as is the case now, so all these matters are very urgent and I think they were made more urgent as a result of this ailment of the president."

The Mubarak government accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of having links to violent Islamic groups seeking to install strict Islamic rule in Egypt. Some analysts have called it the second most powerful political force in Egypt, after the ruling party. But Brotherhood deputy leader Mohamed Habib says that is impossible to say, because even taking surveys on the group's popularity is forbidden.

Mr. Habib said that his group does not seek to be an alternative to the ruling party or to conflict with it. He says his group is only interested in the right to exist and free-elections, which he says would show the real desires of the Egyptian people.

Despite President Mubarak's repeated claims to the contrary, there is speculation among many in Egypt that he has been grooming his 41-year old son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him. Opposition party officials say the younger Mr. Mubarak should not be favored over any other capable Egyptian and that the president's successor should only be chosen in free and open elections.

Gamal Mubarak is a senior member of the ruling party, and he has been given the mandate of modernizing the ruling National Democratic Party and making it more appealing to the country's youth. He has promised improvements in the country's health and education systems.

Professor of Political Science at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, Mohamed Kamal, says Gamal Mubarak has some political credentials.

"He is leading the reform from within the National Democratic Party and he has also worked very hard to empower a new generation of Egyptians who want to play a role in reforming their country," he added.

Mr. Kamal points to President's Mubarak's statements that in Egypt leadership is not determined by inheritance. But other academics and millions of ordinary Egyptians are not ruling out the possibility that their next president will have the same last name as the one they have known for more than 20 years.