Egypt’s presidential campaign: The war has begun

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The campaign to succeed President Hosni Mubarak is in full swing. Tuesday, a demonstration against the candidacy of his son Gamal saw protests erupt in Cairo and Alexandria despite the National Democratic Party (NDP) announcing their support for Hosni Mubarak’s candidacy. Mohamed ElBaradei, the most prominent politician in the opposition, wants to put pressure on the government for a Constitutional reform that would enable him run. With a year to go before the presidential election, the Egyptian political scene has shifted into overdrive.

With only a year to go before the presidential election in Egypt, the battle over who will succeed President Hosni Mubarak is on. Egyptians who oppose a nepotic transfer of power from father (Hosni Mubarak) to son (Gamal Mubarak) voiced their disagreement Tuesday afternoon as they took to the streets. But the protests were marred by clashes with police forces in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

“We do not want a hereditary government!” chanted the demonstrators in an excruciatingly tense atmosphere. In Cairo, protesters, including Kefaya supporters, activists from the left wing, members of opposition parties, and sympathizers of Mohamed ElBaradei (former president of the International Atomic Energy Agency — IAEA), had intended to march to the official presidential residence, Abdeen Palace. They were however blocked by thousands of policemen. According to the protesters, five people were arrested in Cairo while another seven were arrested in Alexandria.

Free drinks and Hookah

Rumors over the succession of the aging President (82 years) by his younger son Gamal are growing. And a campaign launched by some of Gamal’s supporters, a few weeks ago, has since worked Egypt into a frenzy. “Gamal, you are the dream of the poor!” one of several freshly posted bills on the walls of one of many neighborhoods in Cairo reads.

But despite his unpopularity, his supporters are seen in street corners striving to collect the five million signatures needed for his candidacy. To sell the idea to Egyptians, meetings are often improvised in cafés, where customers are invited to extra rounds of soft drinks and a complimentary Hookah.

A pro-government weekly, Al-Ahram, describes one of the meetings a Cairo café: “The coordinator, Saqr Yousri, addressed the crowd; ‘We organized this meeting to collect signatures in order to ask Gamal Mubarak to contest the presidential elections’. Saqr is interrupted by one of the listeners. ‘Who is Gamal Mubarak?’ he asks provoking laughter from the crowd (…). Every citizen who signs a newsletter gets an extra free drink (…) Some pedestrians only sign in exchange for a cool drink, while those who do not know Gamal Mubarak think their votes will go to Yousri Saqr.”

But as the campaign for the nomination of Mubarak’s son rocks the capital, officials of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have distanced themselves from this initiative. “The National Democratic Party has unanimously chosen President Mubarak as its candidate for the next presidential elections,” the Secretary General of NDP, Safwat Al-Sharif, announced in a recent interview with Al-Moussawi, a local magazine.

Meanwhile, Al-Ahram has hinted on the likelihood of an internal conflict between old members of the party, who want President Mubarak to contest the elections, and the new ones, led by a group of businessmen who favor a Gamal Mubarak presidency.

“I think the older members sought to block Gamal Mubarak’s supporters. They especially wanted to send a subtle message to say that the party does not endorse the grassroots campaign”, analyzes George Ishaq, former secretary general of Kefaya, an opposition movement, quoted by the newspaper.

Gamal goes to Washington

But one does not have to look far to dig out some decisive clues to the legacy puzzle. Early September, Gamal Mubarak accompanied his father to Washington where he participated in direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives.

And Elliott Abrams, Former National Security Advisor under the Bush administration, believes that many Egyptians would find this as an attempt to force his son Gamal onto the international political scene.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had, on the other hand, revealed that Gamal Mubarak had met with Israeli negotiators, including Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime minister of Israel. Many foreign politicians now suspect the Egyptian president of trying to help his son forge an international reputation before the northern African country’s presidential campaign begins.

Supporters of Ayman Nour, a key opposition figure who was thrown into jail for three years after advancing to the second round of the 2005 presidential elections, have put up posters bearing the image of Gamal Mubarak and accompanied by the slogan: “Egypt is too big for you.”

As the Egyptian drama drags on, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei, who has campaigned extensively for the democratization of Egypt since returning home early this year, is also collecting signatures for a constitutional reform that would allow for independent candidates, like himself, to stand in a free and transparent electoral process. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has so far collected over 800,000 signatures.

But while political events threaten to throw Egypt into disarray ahead of the November 2011 presidential election, Hosni Mubarak, who has been power for 30 years, won’t budge. The Egyptian president has neither said he would stand for president nor has he shown any public support for his son’s candidacy.

But one thing is certain: “If he decides to run, we will support him 100%,” says Hilal Alieddine, NDP’s information secretary.

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