Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has governed for the last 25 years. Many in Egypt have lived most of their lives under his rule. But with Mr. Mubarak turning 78 last week, the country is once again buzzing with what has become a familiar debate in the coffee houses and newspapers of Cairo: Is Mr. Mubarak's son Gamal being groomed to take over for the aging ruler?
On President Mubarak's 78th birthday last Thursday, his 42-year-old son Gamal held a press conference promoting his father's reform agenda. As a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party, Gamal wanted to focus on the Egyptian economy's six percent growth rate and tripling of direct foreign investment. Instead he found himself deflecting questions about his own political ambitions.
When a reporter asked him for the second time to clarify what he meant in a recent television interview when he said that he has "no desire or intention" to become president, Gamal seemed exasperated. He wagged his finger irritably at the press corps as he referred reporters to his previous denials, and tried to get back to his talking points.
AP reporter: "You said you don't have a desire or intention, but you know ? desires do change, and intentions."
Gamal: "Let me just respond to this one just to get it out of the way. My statement stands, go back and read my statement, I made it absolutely clear and I'm not going to be dragged into responding to that question again. Go back and read my statement. Okay, back to the first question ..."
AP reporter: "I read them, that's why I told you."
Gamal: "Okay, read it again, read it again, read it again."
But as Gamal himself complained at the press conference, the question of whether he will succeed his father as president just won't die.
In public, President Mubarak has always denied that he will pass power to his son. Mr. Mubarak says Egypt is not Syria, where the late President Hafez Al Assad's son Bashar Al Assad became president in 2000.
Yet Mr. Mubarak has never appointed a vice president or clarified what would happen in the event of his death or incapacitation. And although the country's constitution was amended last year to allow multi-party presidential elections, requirements for candidacy are so strict that few actually qualify to run. Meanwhile, Georgetown University Professor Samer Shehata says years of corruption and political repression have taken their toll on opposition parties and politicians, leaving few contenders strong enough to contest the presidency.
"If you're an Egyptian, and you look at the political scene and you don't see alternatives, and you see the increasing importance and public profile of Gamal Mubarak, then you come to the conclusion that it could very well be that Gamal Mubarak will be the next president of Egypt," Shehata said.
But Shehata says Gamal's legitimacy among Egyptians is questionable. Unlike all of Egypt's past presidents, the younger Mubarak never served in the military or held elected office. Even if Egypt is ready for its first civilian president, Shehata says, Gamal Mubarak may not have the pull within the ruling party, or Egypt's powerful army, to consolidate his rule.
Hisham Kassem, chief of the independent Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, argues that Gamal owes his political status entirely to his father's influence.
"I've never taken Gamal Mubarak seriously," Kassem said. "Most of his clout comes from the fact that his father is the president and he's going to lose altitude drastically once his father is dead or out of office. He certainly is not the next president in Egypt. He doesn't have the qualifications."
For now, Gamal Mubarak maintains he is simply dedicated to serving his country. He says, despite some "setbacks," including accusations of electoral fraud, corruption and violence, 2005 was a watershed year for Egyptian reform, and there is no going back.
"Now, are we having problems? You bet we are? Are we stumbling in certain areas? Yes. Are we having some problems with Parliament and even our own members? You bet we do. But this is politics," Gamal Mubarak said.
Yet few Egyptians buy Gamal Mubarak's efforts to paint himself as a genuine reformer.
The day before Gamal's press conference, several hundred demonstrators gathered in downtown Cairo to protest an ongoing government crackdown that has resulted in the detentions and beatings of scores of opposition activists in recent weeks. These protesters see Mubarak's son as complicit in the human rights violations and corruption of his father's regime.
The rally was organized by a group known as Kifaya - Arabic for Enough. Kifaya was formed in 2004 to protest President Mubarak's rule and reject the possibility of his son becoming president after him. But despite growing domestic opposition, Mr. Mubarak was re-elected in September with 88 percent of the vote. Shortly afterwards, Gamal was promoted to assistant secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party in a move that many Egyptians interpreted as just the latest sign Gamal Mubarak's ascendancy.
But 24-year-old protester Alaa Abdel Fatah said Egyptians will never accept Gamal Mubarak as president.
"I know that no one would accept it," he said. "I mean, even as we see a lot of people accepting Mubarak's rule now in Egypt ? I seriously doubt people would accept Gamal's rule. The notion of inheriting a country would be too much even for the most passive Egyptians."
Three days after this interview, Abdel Fatah and seven of his fellow opposition activists were detained during a peaceful protest. They remain in jail, accused, among other things, of insulting the president. The detention of Abdel Fatah and dozens of other protesters in the course of the last month demonstrates that the powerful institution of the presidency, and its future, remains a volatile subject in Egypt.