Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 28 of his 81 years, but he's not likely to run for re-election in 2011. And growing public debate over the identity of his successor is fueled in no small part by the fact that Egyptians are not fond of a President who is widely believed to be grooming his 45-year-old son, Gamal Mubarak, to take the reins. (Neither man acknowledges such a plan.) But while such a familial handoff would hardly be atypical in the Middle East, it's far from a done deal in Egypt.
The younger Mubarak was given a starring role in this month's annual conference of the ruling National Democratic Party, in what many see as an effort to position him to run in 2011 and that would make his accession to the presidency largely a formality, since Egypt's regime does not tolerate a genuinely competitive democracy, and controls the political process to prevent it challenging the status quo. The most popular opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains banned, although its members running as independents have garnered a substantial minority of parliamentary seats.
Elections have never played a deciding role in choosing Egypt's President: Mubarak, and before him, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, all became head of state by virtue of their position in the military, and some warn that the military may not welcome the presidency being handed to an outsider. But while Gamal's lack of a military background poses a question mark over his prospects, analysts believe that a smooth familial transfer of power could be accomplished if the son was eased into position while his father remains in charge.
"Of course the army is important," says Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired general and the head of military studies at the government-funded al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "But I don't think that they could prevent something [like Gamal's succession] from happening." That's because as President, Mubarak has absolute power to appoint and fire the country's military commanders.
Still, the prospect of a pharaonic succession in the modern Arab state riles many Egyptians, and economic pressures are stirring social unrest. "Since 2004, Egypt has witnessed more political and economic protests in any period since the 1919 revolution," says Georgetown University political scientist Samer Shehata. "That potentially poses a big problem for the regime. Those are things that could get out of control."
Although street demonstrators often chant "He shall not rule" in reference to Gamal during strikes and other actions, opposition parties appear unlikely to muster a serious challenge to the authoritarian regime that has ruled Egypt for more than half a century, and which sets the rules for elections to prevent regime change.
Egypt currently has over 20 registered political parties, but most are a total mystery, even to political scientists. "They're joker parties. They're ink on paper," says Shehata. "But these parties have a function at times like this because they can have their candidate run against Gamal Mubarak and they get some benefits. And it looks like an election to the world, when in fact, it's not an election at all."
The ruling party is certainly not about to risk a real democratic contest against the Muslim Brotherhood, the party most likely to beat it at the polls. The recent conference of Mubarak's party urged harsher measures against the group, which is already subject to frequent crackdowns, warning against risking a repeat of the 2005 parliamentary election, in which Brotherhood candidates running as independents won pretty much all of the 20% of seats for which they were allowed to compete.
Still, the lively public discussion over Mubarak's succession is a new development. The independent press has nudged several Gamal alternatives into the limelight in recent weeks, including the Nobel Peace Prizewinning head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate chemist Ahmed Zewail and Amr Moussa a popular former Foreign Minister and current head of the Arab League.
"Putting these names up there complicates matters for the Mubarak regime," Shehata says. "It is a statement that there are a number of qualified individuals of different stripes and of different backgrounds ... that many Egyptians respect, admire and would be willing to consider as a President in the future."
ElBaradei has said he might run if elections are guaranteed to be fair, while Moussa coyly told a local newspaper last month that he wouldn't rule it out. In a recent interview with TIME, Moussa stayed mum on the question of candidacy, but maintained the rhetorical flair of a man in the race, and hinted at his own disillusionment with the Mubarak regime by blaming an "accumulation of wrong policies" for Egypt's ongoing "crisis in education," and stressed the importance of fighting corruption. Calling for reform in all aspects of life in Egypt, Moussa said the country needed to discuss the question: "What kind of Egypt do we need?"
ElBaradei has spent much of his career outside of Egypt, but Moussa whose name is sung in praise by Egyptian pop star Shaaban Abdel Rahim, and who some allege was moved from his Foreign Ministry post in 2001 because he was becoming too popular could pose the greatest threat to a Mubarak family handover in an open political race.
But Egyptians are skeptical about how much will change. Says Nawal al-Saadawi, a prominent Egyptian novelist and longtime critic of the regime, "Maybe Mubarak will tell [Moussa], 'Yes, come on, be a candidate just for the show.' Like they used [liberal opposition politician] Ayman Nour in the last election. They brought him out of prison to run in the election and then they put him back in. It's ridiculous!"
Shehata concurs: "I would find it hard to believe that Amr Moussa would risk his political life and future by saying ... 'I might run,' " suggesting that the Arab League Secretary is merely positioning himself as an actor on the Mubaraks' stage. Asked whether the 2011 race would be any more legitimate than the last, Moussa himself laughed, "Well, all of us hope so."