Posters have sprouted up around Egypt promoting the son of President Hosni Mubarak as the country's next leader, in the most overt campaign yet for a controversial father-son succession in this key U.S. Arab ally.
For the last decade, it has been believed that Gamal Mubarak is being groomed to succeed his 82-year-old father, who has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years. But the idea of father-son succession has raised deep opposition among many Egyptians.
Even some within the ruling party are thought to be unconvinced, and Gamal – a 46-year-old investment banker turned politician – has little popular base.
The posters suggest Gamal's supporters within the party are making a push to shore up his position with the most public campaign to date in support of his candidacy. The signs – some touting the business suit-wearing Gamal as the dream of the poor – appeared around Cairo and other cities over the past few weeks. Campaign leaders are also collecting signatures for a 'Yes to Gamal' petition.
While the ruling National Democratic Party strongly denied any connection between the party and the pro-Gamal campaign, a party official privately told AP that these posters were meant to be a trial balloon for Gamal's popularity in the street, he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The question of who will lead Egypt after Mubarak has taken on increased urgency amid concerns about the aging president's health following surgery in Germany earlier this year. The elder Mubarak has not said whether he would run for a sixth term in presidential elections scheduled for next year, though he has vowed to stay in office until his last breath.
Mubarak has never appointed a vice president, and there is no political figure of comparable stature who stands out as an election possibility.
Who succeeds him likely depends largely on the decision by Mubarak himself along with top figures within the ruling party, the military and the security forces. Ruling party candidates are virtually assured of victory in elections, which are usually plagued by widespread vote fraud. Presidential elections will be in fall 2011.
Safwat el-Sherif, the secretary general of the ruling party and a member of its old guard, said the posters and signature campaign for Gamal were political naiveté.
Observers, however, have noted that security forces have allowed the posters to stand, though the rules say campaigning cannot begin until shortly before the elections themselves, which are not until next year.
The whole thing is meant to look like a spontaneous grassroots movement, but the NDP stamp is hard to miss, Salama Ahmed Salama, a veteran columnist wrote in the Thursday in the English language Al-Ahram Weekly. The presidential silence can only be interpreted as a sign of consent and support, he added.
The sudden appearance of the posters could be a window into a battle taking place within the ruling party, said Amr el-Shobaki, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
He said the posters are likely from pro-Gamal party members trying to drum up support from others in the party. It is a sign that the issue has not yet been settled internally, he said.
The posters suggesting there's a popular clamor for his candidacy is done for appearance's sake, he said. Party officials know that Gamal won't come to office through free elections but through internal arrangements.
Gamal Mubarak is the deputy head of the party and leads its influential Policies Committee, directing Egypt's economic liberalization program. His core support comes from wealthy businessmen.
Gamal himself has subtly changed his tone about whether he intends to run for the presidency. I have not nominated myself, he said earlier this month, responding to a question by a young NDP member at a public forum – leaving open the possibility of accepting if others push for his nomination.
It's the latest in a nuanced evolution by the younger Mubarak. Only a few years ago, he would answer such questions by saying he was not interested in seeking an executive position. Later he started saying his main concern was just to revitalize and reform the party.
The posters are a startlingly overt campaign foray. Officially they have been put up by a number of pro-Gamal organizations unaffiliated to the ruling party and actually headed by former members of the opposition. NDP spokesman Ali Eddin Helal says the campaigns are not being run by party members.
But the organizations are widely believed to be NDP fronts. They give the ruling party a measure of plausible deniability, said Manal Lasheen, an opposition journalist who has covered parliament and the NDP for 20 years. If the campaigns fail it won't be counted as a failure for Gamal, she said.
Posters showing the younger Mubarak and proclaiming, Gamal is the dream of the poor and Gamal for all Egyptians were put up by one group called the Popular Coalition to Support Gamal Mubarak, headed by Magdy el-Kurdi, a former member of the leftist opposition Tagammu party.
The campaign is urging the elder Mubarak to give his son a chance to run in the upcoming election, el-Kurdi told The Associated Press on Thursday. He said he has amassed 8,000 volunteers and spent about $9,000 gathered from personal donations. Gamal enjoys very high popularity, he said, adding that his group tours the country by car to try to drum up support.
But Gamal Mubarak has an uphill struggle in building a popular following. His main stumbling block could be the same factor that gives him the most influence: He is Mubarak's son.
Many in Egypt complain that the government is ignoring the needs of its poorest citizens. More than 40 percent of the population lives on around $2 per day, social services are lacking, food prices are climbing, electricity blackouts are near daily occurrences, corruption is endemic, nepotism rife, jobs are hard to find and adequate compensation for them even harder.
A recent poll carried out by the NDP in May revealed strikingly low popularity figures for the president's son, said a party official, who refused to give details. The poll was never made public.
The independent daily, Al-Shorouk obtained a leaked copy of a similar study carried out by the NDP six months earlier. That survey had intended to poll thousands in eight different provinces, but it was cut short after surveying three provinces because only nine percent of the 4,000 people polled up to that point expressed support for Gamal, the paper reported.