Speculation about a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt intensified this week with news that Mr. Mubarak's 46-year-old son Gamal accompanied his father to Washington for the opening of Middle East peace talks. This was not the younger Mubarak's first introduction to U.S. officials but it came in a time of growing uncertainty about succession ahead of parliamentary elections this fall and presidential elections in 2011.
David Ottaway is a Senior Scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center. He is also a former Washington Post bureau chief in Cairo. He talked this week with reporter Cecily Hilleary about the significance of Gamal's visit and about some of the issues and contenders in next year's presidential vote.
Ottaway: I think it's significant. I mean, President Mubarak brought his son last year at about this same time to introduce him to American senior officials. You know, he continues to promote his son without saying so, and it's clear that he regards his son as the likely heir to "the throne" of Egypt. And he's been promoting his son slowly for the last eight years
Now, there are scenarios where this plan might not succeed, and that is why President Mubarak has left open the possibility that he'll run again in 2011.
Hilleary: What are the chances of that? How's his health holding out?
Ottaway: Well, his health is certainly the number one question. And I think, aside of his health, the real issue in the last nine months for President Mubarak has been how successful the campaign to promote Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, who has certainly been putting out "feelers" and setting up his own campaign to run for president, how successful his campaign will be.
Hilleary: Well, he [ElBaradei] has recently surprised observers by aligning himself with the Muslim Brotherhood. How does this impact things for Mubarak and for ElBaradei?
Ottaway: Well, I think for ElBaradei, it's quite a gamble because the Muslim Brotherhood has been going through a difficult period in which its own conservatives, who are much more Islamic-oriented, have really prevailed within the party. So, that cannot endear upper-class, secular Egyptians to ElBaradei.
On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most effective, well-organized non-governmental organization in Egypt. So it's tempting for ElBaradei to seek and want their support.
Hilleary: We've had another political surprise recently - that is, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the human rights advocate and strong Mubarak critic, has now thrown his support or has he? to the Gamal petition?
Ottaway: Well, "has he" is indeed the question, and I think it's a little bit difficult until we get a fuller explanation from Saad of his own behavior in signing a petition in favor of Gamal Mubarak to know exactly what he is up to. Saad Eddin has been the foremost critic, I would say, among the Egyptian intellectuals, for the concept idea of Mubarak passing on power to his son. And, in fact, he got into so much trouble in his comments about this that he was thrown in jail by President Mubarak. So this is quite a turnaround.
Saad is trying to say, "Well, I'm for anybody who runs, you know, I'm going to sign all petitions, and we want to have a good presidential election with lots of candidates." And I think that's his argument. But it's hard for him to overcome the perception, particularly in Egypt, that he is trying to make some kind of deal with Gamal in order to restore his own position and influence in the country and to be able to go back there without fear of arrest.
Hilleary: So, what's your take on what he has said or done?
Ottaway: I'm waiting for a fuller explanation from Saad of his decision to do this. So I'm still a bit agnostic.
Hilleary: Finally today we read a new group of activists are pushing for Omar Suleiman, Egypt's spy chief, to run for presidency.
Ottaway: Suleiman has certainly been in the news as the main alternative to Gamal, particularly if the army and the security services back him. Now, it's interesting: Omar Suleiman has been here together with Gamal on this visit, keeping a very low profile.
But it's interesting to me that Mubarak brought both of the chief contenders as a successor here to Washington, because Suleiman has been pretty close to Gamal Mubarak, and it's not to me because of his age that he's really interested in running to become the successor. But in Egypt, you never know.
Hilleary: Let's bring it back around to the meetings going on in Washington this week. Hosni Mubarak is here to help mediate and put pressure on the Palestinians. What kind of pressure does this put President Obama under vis-à-vis Egypt?
Ottaway: I think Obama's looking to President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan to make it possible for the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to make the kind of concessions he's likely to have to make in order to get an agreement. So I think that's the meaning of Mubarak's presence here, as well as the Jordanian King.
Hilleary: What is President Mubarak looking for in return? Or is he?
Ottaway: I think he's looking for and getting less pressure from the United States for the kind of democratic process we would like to see unfold in Egypt and which President Bush had really made a big issue in our relationship with Egypt.
Hilleary: You pointed out in your most recent article, The Arab Tomorrow, which is in the Winter 2010 edition of the Wilson Quarterly, that in pushing for democracy, the United States didn't necessarily get what it wanted.
Ottaway: It certainly didn't, and Mubarak, in fact, refused to come to visit Bush here in Washington throughout the second term of the Bush Administration because he was so mad over the pressure that Bush was putting on him.
Hilleary: So do you believe that this was a lesson carried over into the Obama Administration?
Ottaway: I do. I think Obama has decided that pushing that hard for democracy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly was just counterproductive, particularly if he wanted Mubarak's support for a difficult peace process solution.
Hilleary: So your ultimate prediction? Will the U.S. put any more pressure will the U.S. get involved in the Egyptian elections?
Ottaway: Well, I think it depends on how the Egyptian government deals with Mohamed ElBaradei. If they use the heavy-handed tactics that they used on some of the other contenders for power in the 2005 election, I would think Obama would have to speak out in opposition and criticism. I think one of the most interesting things to watch is how the Mubarak government deals with Mohamed Elbaradei, who at this point is trying to get a million people to sign a petition that would change the constitution so that he could run for the presidency in 2011.
Otherwise, I think that with this coming year, particularly when Mubarak is crucial to trying to get some agreement on Palestinian issue[s], that Obama will not say or do much to criticize President Mubarak.