Friday, December 10, 2010

New Contender Emerges in Egypt

BY CHARLES LEVINSON
Wall Street Journal
DECEMBER 10, 2010

CAIRO—A new face has emerged as a possible contender to follow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as leader of the Arab world's most populous country.

Mr. Mubarak, 82 years old and recently recovered from gall-bladder surgery, hasn't named a successor, refusing even to appoint a vice president, ahead of presidential elections slated for next fall. For nearly a decade, there have been two presumed candidates in line to succeed him: Gamal Mubarak, the younger of his two sons, and Omar Suleiman, the country's powerful intelligence chief.

But some Western diplomats, senior members of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party and political analysts in Cairo say a new contender has emerged: Ahmed Shafiq, the minister of civil aviation and a former commander of Egypt's air force, who spearheaded a turnaround begun in 2002 at the country's flagship carrier, Egypt Air.

"Shafiq has a good reputation. He's tough, honest, and low-key," a senior official in Egypt's ruling party said. "His name is definitely out there."

Diplomats cited a recent column by the editor-in-chief of the progovernment, state-controlled Mussawar magazine touting Mr. Shafiq's merits as a sign of his rise. Mr. Shafiq declined to comment for this article.

Mr. Mubarak, in power nearly three decades, hasn't said whether he will seek another term. If he doesn't, he could pick a successor to run at the top of the NDP ticket, making his choice the favorite to become Egypt's next president.

Rivals from outside the party, such as the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, have generated some enthusiasm, but currently appear to have little hope of posing a meaningful challenge to the political regime.

Mr. ElBaradei has said he views himself as a symbol for change and not a political leader. In a video posted on his Facebook page Wednesday, he called for a boycott of the election and for mass demonstrations.

Amid persistent questions about Mr. Mubarak's health, the lack of a known successor has worried Western diplomats and Egyptian officials.

"Everyone expected to have some clarity by now," said a Western military official in Cairo who works closely with Egypt's military, which has been the key power broker in Egyptian politics. "At any time, we can see a sudden power vacuum."

A vacuum would increase the chance of a protracted power struggle in the ruling party. Rivalries reach up to Mr. Mubarak's inner circle, according to officials in Cairo. That circle of military commanders, security and intelligence officials and party bosses would likely decide Egypt's next ruler if Mr. Mubarak dies or becomes incapacitated without naming a successor.

The succession prospects of Gamal Mubarak, 47-year-old head of the ruling party's policy committee, were once almost unquestionable, but appear to have faded in recent years, as a series of policy initiatives, including economic overhauls, have been stymied. He and his allies have long appeared locked in a power struggle with an old guard that has maintained a tight hold on Egypt military and security apparatus. Mr. Mubarak declined requests to be interviewed.

Many observers say Mr. Suleiman is the most likely successor. He is President Mubarak's closest aide, charged with handling the country's most sensitive issues. He also has close working relations with the U.S. and a lifetime of experience inside Egypt's military and intelligence apparatus.

But in recent months, his public profile has diminished, triggering speculation his star also may have faded. And his age, 74, could be an obstacle.

Mr. Shafiq, meanwhile, appears to be able to navigate between the two power centers inside the NDP. The 69-year-old is a former Air Force commander, as President Mubarak was, and served under Mr. Mubarak's command. He comes from a relatively limited cadre of powerful retired generals serving in influential civilian roles. He is a trusted Mubarak-family confidant, according to Western and Egyptian officials.

He has also proved his managerial skills, dragging Egypt's commercial air sector into the 21st century. He spearheaded massive upgrades to Cairo International Airport and transformed the country's once-rickety national air carrier.

"He's a very stable person, very balanced, and very quiet," says Osama Ghazali Harb, a former NDP official and ally of Gamal Mubarak, who broke with the regime in 2005 and now edits an influential political journal. "But most important, he's very trusted by Mubarak himself."
—Ashraf Khalil contributed to this article.

Write to Charles Levinson at charles.levinson@wsj.com

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