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Succession in Egypt: A complex issue as old and new worlds clash Add to ...

Egypt's 82-year-old President, Hosni Mubarak, has let it be known that, despite ill health, he is considering running for another term in the election next year.

While some might be shocked at the prospect of such an aged, ailing leader ruling over the Arab world's most populous country, Mr. Mubarak almost certainly has other plans. If he learned anything from the man he succeeded in office - Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981 - it is to have control over who will be his successor. And such control can only be exercised if he is alive - an unlikely state, at the end of another six-year term.

The wily Egyptian leader is almost certainly trying to take the heat off his 47-year-old second son, Gamal, a power within the ruling party and the man voted most likely to succeed by Egypt's expanding economic elite. The younger Mr. Mubarak is unknown by the masses, who recoil at the thought of hereditary succession.

President Mubarak has reason to be concerned that opposition Islamists could do well in the November's parliamentary elections, especially if the prospect of a Mubarak II is a political issue.

Egypt, it seems, is at a political crossroads: The Egypt of old, with its state control and privilege, is running head-on into the fast-moving new Egypt of economic openness and the rule of law.

It is Gamal Mubarak who has spearheaded a program of economic and political reform, ushering in a new moneyed class, the people who fill the gated communities on the outskirts of the capital, away from the country's masses.

But is he part of the solution to the country's woes, or part of the problem?

Since 2002, he has been calling the shots in the powerful policy committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In that unelected capacity he has seen that Egypt now enjoys lower taxes, reduced bureaucracy for businesses, limits to police immunity and freer elections.

But if Egypt is to shake off its widespread poverty and a restive Islamic movement, the benefits of reform will have to reach more than just the cream of society.

The clash of cultures was widely evident in a pair of recent high-profile court cases that have all Egyptians talking. Both involved billionaire Egyptian businessman Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a prominent member of the ruling NDP and a close associate of Gamal Mubarak.

In the first case, a criminal matter, the billionaire was found guilty last year of the 2008 murder of his ex-mistress, a young Lebanese singer, and sentenced to death. (Mr. Moustafa apparently paid a retired policeman $2-million to carry out the deed in Dubai.) Then, in late September, a second judge abruptly ended a retrial of the case before some witnesses had been heard and closing arguments made. The judge determined that Mr. Moustafa was guilty, but reduced the man's sentence to 15 years imprisonment.

In Egypt, a penal year is deemed to be nine months and the well-connected industrialist should be released in only a few years - just in time to enjoy the fruits of another legal decision.

In a separate case last month, a high court confirmed that Mr. Moustafa had illegally benefited from the 2005 purchase of a very large parcel of government land outside Cairo. The property, it turned out, had never been publicly tendered, as required by law. The court ordered the deal struck down even though Mr. Moustafa's company, TMG, already had begun work on a $3-billion development.

Not to be thwarted, the NDP government found a way around the legal ruling. It cancelled the contract, as ordered by the court, but immediately decreed that the same land be "directly assigned" to TMG in return for the same amount of money. By citing "the public interest," the government escaped any legal challenge.

In both these front-page cases, the new rule of law was applied in the first instance to bring to book a member of Egypt's ruling elite, something that wasn't always done in the past. But in each case, another court, or the government itself, stepped in to restore some of Mr. Moustafa's privilege.

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