Egypt wonders how long aging leader can go on

Intelligence chief, son often cited as possible successors

By Paul Schemm
Associated Press / August 15, 2009

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CAIRO - When Egypt’s leader meets Tuesday with President Obama in Washington, US officials may find themselves caught up in the country’s number one guessing game: How much longer can Hosni Mubarak go on?

The 81-year-old president has looked weakened and pale in several appearances in recent months. During a July visit to Italy he was photographed being helped up the stairs. His office is resolutely silent about his health.

On the other hand, after 28 years in power he shows no specific sign of illness, and he has just traveled to Europe and toured the Egyptian provinces. Last month, in a long interview on Egyptian TV, he appeared vigorous and talked in detail on a range of topics.

Another big question is who would succeed him as head of the Arab world’s most populous nation, an American ally that plays a critical role in issues ranging from Mideast peace efforts to curbing Islamic militancy.

Those most often cited are his son, Gamal Mubarak, and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. But because Mubarak has no vice president, even the mechanism of succession is unclear, leaving the choice to backroom machinations among the ruling party, the security services, and billionaire businessmen.

To look tired and need help on the stairs may not sound unusual for an 81-year-old, but the problem for Egyptians is that they are given no official information at all about their leader’s health.

Merely to speculate on it can be hazardous, as editor Ibrahim Eissa discovered when his tabloid daily, Al-Dustour, claimed in 2007 that Mubarak was ill. He was convicted of libel and sentenced to six months in prison. A court cut the sentence to two months, and Mubarak pardoned Eissa after he was freed.

Still, some Egyptians are willing to guess out loud.

“His health has deteriorated seriously; his exact condition, no one knows,’’ said Hisham Kassem, founder of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a leading independent newspaper.

In mid-July, several independent papers ran a front-page photo of Mubarak being helped up the stairs in Italy during the G-8 summit. State newspapers didn’t print the picture. Later in July, Mubarak appeared tired while addressing a Non-Aligned Summit at an Egyptian resort.

When Obama visited in June, Mubarak didn’t greet him at the airport or sit in on his speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University. When they finally did meet, Egyptians were quick to spot the contrast.

“He looked so old when Obama stood next to him,’’ said Ahmad Morsi Ahmad, a tax collector in his late 60s, talking with friends at a Cairo coffee shop.

If Mubarak seems less lively than usual, it may be the effect of losing his 12-year-old grandson to an undisclosed illness in May. Many diplomats and Egyptian political observers believe Mubarak’s health took a downturn.

He now offers fewer photo opportunities. A thickset man with a deep voice and ready smile, he no longer gives the impromptu news conferences at which he would joke with reporters he knew. This week’s US visit is his first in four years.

The next presidential election is in 2011, and his National Democratic Party’s grip on the levels of government, coupled with chronic voter fraud and an opposition in disarray, virtually guarantees he would win another six-year term.

So far, Mubarak has given no indication he will stand down. But he could choose to use the rest of his term to put a successor in place, rather than die or be incapacitated and lose control of the succession.

Gamal Mubarak, 45, is the party deputy head with a powerful role in domestic policy and is surrounded by an inner circle of influential and wealthy businessmen-politicians. Older party veterans are believed to be skeptical about the son, however.

Kassem, the newspaper founder, says Gamal is simply “not strong enough’’ for the job. He’s betting on Suleiman, the intelligence chief and a former military man. Suleiman is Mubarak’s point man in discussions with Israel and the Palestinians, and in relations with the United States he also is the enforcer of the president’s orders, making him government’s effective number two.