CAIRO: Egypt’s veteran President Hosni Mubarak has stepped up his public appearances and meetings to counter rumors of declining health but the burst of activity leaves open the question of a successor.
Mubarak, 82, triggered another round of speculation on his health when he twice postponed a meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.
Arab and Israeli press reported his health was in steep decline and that he planned another visit to the German hospital where he underwent surgery in March to remove a benign growth and his gallbladder.
Instead, Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981, held a series of back-to-back meetings last Sunday with Somalia’s president, a US envoy, Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
He kept up the pace by attending four military and police graduation ceremonies in as many days.
"The president’s activity is the best rebuttal to the reports that came out of Israeli and American circles," the president’s spokesman Suleiman Awad told Egyptian newspapers.
Presidential aides even have trouble keeping up with the octogenarian ruler, Awad said.
Critics contend the lack of transparency that characterizes his government has helped fuel rumors that there might be more to his surgery than was announced.
"The cause of the rumors is the absence of transparency and lack of information on his condition after his surgery," said Amr El-Choubaki, an analyst with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Awad’s statements appear to "give the impression he is talking about a young man in his 20s, while it is only natural that the president should take into account his age and health," El-Choubaki said.
The government insists it had been hiding nothing about Mubarak’s health.
But it has been loathe to answer the most pressing question in Egyptian politics today: who will succeed Mubarak as a presidential election in 2011 draws near?
Mubarak may choose to run for yet another term. But if he intends to step down, which analysts say is more likely, there is no clear successor.
His son Gamal, 46, is widely seen as a possible replacement. A former investment banker, he heads the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) policies committee and is credited with pushing through economic reforms.
The possibility of his candidacy has become a lightning rod for Egyptian dissidents to complain of a Mubarak dynasty and inherited presidency.
Mubarak has never appointed a vice president, which in the past has been the stepping stone to the top job, while the NDP says it is under no obligation to announce its candidate until it selects him next year.
El-Choubaki sees different scenarios: either Gamal or a candidate from the military could be picked, or an alternative such as reformer and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei could win the election.
The second option was the most likely.
The prospects of any serious contest are minimal due to the opposition’s weakness and constitutional obstacles in the way of independent candidates such as ElBaradei, who has yet to clarify whether he will run.
The answer will have the full attention of countries such as Israel, which has diplomatic ties with Egypt, and the United States, which gives billions of dollars in aid to Egypt each year and views it as a crucial regional ally.