CAIRO: American diplomats believe Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would have a tough time persuading power brokers in the military to accept his son as his successor, according to leaked US Embassy memos.
The documents, released by the WikiLeaks website on Tuesday, conclude that Mubarak might be able to install his son if he does so before his death and steps aside. If the elder Mubarak dies in office, however, the succession scenario becomes “messier,” with no guarantee of military support for his son but also few other clear alternatives, the memos say.
It’s Egypt’s most intriguing question: who will succeed the 82-year-old Mubarak. He is widely believed to be grooming his son Gamal for the role. A presidential election will be held next year, and it is still not certain if the elder Mubarak will run again.
The issue of succession has triggered passions in Egypt particularly in March when the 82-year-old president underwent surgery to remove his gall bladder and a small growth on his intestine, six years after surgery to repair a slipped disc.
It has also come back to the surface after the ruling party clinched 420 of 508 seats in the Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 parliamentary elections, which monitors said were fraught with irregularities.
“Cairene conventional wisdom holds that Gamal wants the job, despite his repeated denials to the contrary,” then US ambassador Francis Ricciardone wrote in a May 2007 secret cable devoted to the presidential succession in Egypt, released on Monday by WikiLeaks.
“It is hard to argue that Gamal is not being groomed for the presidency,” the cable says, noting his “increasingly robust role” in the ruling National Democratic Party.
“Many in the Egyptian elite see his succession as positive, as his likely continuation of the current status quo would serve their business and political interests.”
One of the internal diplomatic messages described the military as the “key stumbling block” for a Gamal candidacy.
“Gamal didn’t serve as a military officer and we believe he didn’t complete his compulsory service,” said the memo, written by Ricciardone.
“His power base is his father, and so while he could conceivably be installed prior to Mubarak’s death, the task would become far more difficult … once the pharaoh has departed the scene,” he added, relying on the opinions of observers who were not identified.
The 46-year-old Gamal, the younger of the president’s two sons, is a Western-trained banker-turned-politician who has risen up in the ranks of the ruling party since 2002. He heads the party’s powerful policy committee and was appointed its assistant chairman in 2006.
The memos, however, appear to support the contention of many Egyptian political commentators that the ruling National Democratic Party is split on the idea of father-son succession — on one side are Gamal’s supporters among wealthy businessmen hoping to benefit even more if he becomes president, and on the other a small but powerful clique of older politicians closer to his father.
In the memo by Ricciardone, he says American diplomats had heard a few accounts that those against Gamal include Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is said to “detest” the idea of a Gamal presidency.
While Tantawi and the upper ranks of the military might accept it in the end out of loyalty to Mubarak the father, the memo asserts that middle ranks might not go along.
Long-term Defense Minister Tantawi “could play a role in clearing the way for Gamal if he calculates that is in the best interests of the country.”
“Conversely he could also be a key player in preventing Gamal’s ascendance,” the ambassador wrote.
“We have heard some limited reports of Tantawi’s increasing frustration and disenchantment with Gamal,” he said in the cable devoted to the presidential succession in Egypt.
But he also warns that Egypt’s next president could have an “initial anti-American tone in his public rhetoric” to win over the Egyptian street and predicts he will be “inevitably be politically weaker than [Hosni] Mubarak.”
“The possibility of a mid-20th century style coup of colonels can not be entirely discounted,” the memo said.
Ricciardone concludes that whoever succeeds Mubarak will be “politically weaker” and will be more eager to sound an anti-American tone to build a popular base and demonstrate his “nationalist bona fides” to the Egyptian street.
Ricciardone’s successor, Ambassador Margaret Scobey, agreed that the military would ultimately line up behind Gamal “if Mubarak resigned and installed him in the presidency.” But, she adds, in a September 2008 memo, “In a messier succession scenario, however, it becomes more difficult to predict the military’s actions.”
Mubarak never appointed a vice president, further complicating the question of who will succeed him. He was vice president when Muslim militants gunned down President Anwar Sadat during a military parade in Cairo in 1981. Mubarak then became president and has held the office ever since.
Another US memo, dated Sept. 23, 2008, says Mubarak may well be trying to weaken the military by strengthening the economic elite close to Gamal and at the same time trying to co-opt the military “through patronage.”
In a couple of memos, US diplomats also described the Egyptian military as being in decline and singled out Tantawi, the defense minister, for responsibility.
Scobey described him in a Dec. 21, 2008, message as “a chief impediment” in the face of US efforts to transform the Egyptian military’s mission to meet emerging security threats.
“During his tenure, the tactical and operational readiness of the Egyptian armed forces has decayed but he retains Mubarak’s support and could easily remain in place for years to come,” she wrote.