In Egypt, Succession Worries Prompting Crackdown?

CUSTOM: Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt protest the arrests of the group's leaders last year i

In this file photo from April 2008, supporters of Egypt's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, demonstrate in Alexandria, Egypt, against a wave of arrests targeting the group's leaders and potential candidates in upcoming local elections. Members of the group say it is experiencing similar persecution now, more than a year away from parliamentary elections. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
CUSTOM: Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt protest the arrests of the group's leaders last year

In this file photo from April 2008, supporters of Egypt's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, demonstrate in Alexandria, Egypt, against a wave of arrests targeting the group's leaders and potential candidates in upcoming local elections. Members of the group say it is experiencing similar persecution now, more than a year away from parliamentary elections.

AP

Egypt's long-ruling National Democratic Party opens its annual conference Friday, and party leaders are working hard to quell speculation about President Hosni Mubarak's intentions — and whether the way is being paved for his son Gamal to succeed the 81-year-old leader.

The presidential vote isn't until 2011, but parties are gearing up for parliamentary elections next fall, and once again the opposition, including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, faces daunting obstacles.

The American concept of the eternal campaign has yet to reach Egypt, which is probably a good thing for the largest opposition movement, the banned-but-intermittently-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptians, who can be masters of black humor, say they can tell how close they are to election day by how many Muslim Brotherhood members are under arrest.

Muslim Brotherhood Candidates' Pool 'Depleted'

One sign that the crackdown on opposition movements came early this election cycle showed up on campuses around Egypt. At Cairo University, students protested the removal of all Muslim Brotherhood candidates from student elections.

A second sign was more familiar. Nearly a year before parliamentary elections are scheduled, the Muslim Brotherhood's political director, Essam el-Erian says arrests are severely depleting the group's pool of candidates: More than 400 Muslim Brotherhood candidates are in jail. The organization also faces a "bombardment in the national [state-run] media," he says.

Officially, Muslim Brotherhood candidates run as independents, but they vote as a bloc in parliament. In 2005, that bloc won a surprising 88 seats, nearly 20 percent of the total.

Erian says the ruling NDP seems determined not to let that happen again. He says the NDP doesn't want a strong opposition in place if there is to be an attempt to hand power from father to son, something Erian says Egyptians have rejected ever since the Free Officers' revolution abolished the Egyptian monarchy more than 50 years ago.

"The people are afraid that any change [in] the nature of our system from republican to monarchy would be very dangerous, because we had a revolution to change the system before, and this will be 'an opposite revolution,' " he says.

Opposition To 'Inheritance' Of Power

NDP leaders insist that Gamal Mubarak will not inherit power, but he is free to run as a candidate. So far, the younger Mubarak, who was born in 1963, says he is not interested.

Opposition politician Ayman Nour i

Opposition politician Ayman Nour speaks at a news conference Oct. 14 in Cairo, Egypt. Opposition groups gathered for the launch of a new coalition calling for an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, and opposing the possibility that Mubarak's son, Gamal, will succeed him. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Opposition politician Ayman Nour

Opposition politician Ayman Nour speaks at a news conference Oct. 14 in Cairo, Egypt. Opposition groups gathered for the launch of a new coalition calling for an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, and opposing the possibility that Mubarak's son, Gamal, will succeed him.

AFP/Getty Images

Even so, a new coalition has formed to oppose what it calls the "inheritance" of power. The coalition's most prominent member is Ayman Nour, a liberal former lawmaker who came in a distant second to Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 election and was jailed soon after on what his supporters say were politically motivated charges.

Nour says the harassment he suffered as a candidate is happening again. He told a news conference that he can't access his bank account or find work as a law professor, but still he feels compelled to speak out.

"We want to claim our rights respectfully, because it is our right to be part of the decision-making process in this country," he says.

Ruling Party's New Tactics

Mohammad Kamal, a political scientist at Cairo University and NDP advisory committee member, says there is no policy of harassing the opposition, including Nour.

"Maybe the question that he doesn't ask himself is whether this cause is popular among Egyptians or not," Kamal says.

Kamal says the NDP has learned lessons from 2005 and has launched major anti-poverty and infrastructure projects across the country. The results, he says, will show in the coming elections.

"There will always be a protest vote. But maybe instead of going to the Muslim Brotherhood, it might go to other opposition candidates or other opposition political parties," he says.

Other names that have been mentioned as possible successors to Mubarak include intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei, and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

But some officials say all the pre-election maneuvering may come to nothing.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif recently reminded an investment summit in Cairo that Mubarak, who once said he would serve Egypt "until the last breath," has given no indication that he will not pursue yet another six-year term.

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