RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for nearly three decades, and there's no shortage of speculation on how long he plans to stay in office and whether the way is being paved for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. The president's long-ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, opens its annual conference today. It's looking ahead to Egypt's parliamentary elections next year and the next presidential election in 2011.
NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report from Cairo on the daunting challenges faced by anyone who opposes Mubarak or his party.
PETER KENYON: 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 brothers are under arrest. But that formula doesn't hold at the moment.
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KENYON: One sign that the crackdown on opposition movements was coming early this election cycle showed up on campuses around Egypt. These students at Cairo University are protesting the removal of all Muslim Brotherhood candidates from the student elections.
A second sign was more familiar. Nearly a year before parliamentary elections are scheduled, the Muslim Brotherhood's political director, Issam al-Eryan, says their pool of candidates is being severely depleted.
Mr. ISSAM AL-ERYAN (Political Director, Muslim Brotherhood): Because now we have no season for election, but we have more than 400 of our candidates are in jail, and, of course, a bombardment in the national media against that organization, Muslim Brotherhood.
KENYON: Officially, 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.
Eryan 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 Eryan says Egyptians have rejected ever since the Free Officers' revolution abolished the Egyptian monarchy more than 50 years ago.
Mr. ERYAN: And the people are afraid that any change of the nature of our system from republican to monarchy would be very dangerous, because we have a revolution to change the system before, and this will be an opposite revolution.
KENYON: NDP leaders insist that Gamal Mubarak will not inherit power, but he's free to run as a candidate. So far, the younger Mubarak says he's not interested.
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, the liberal former lawmaker who came in a distant second to Hosni Mubarak in 2005 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, can't find work as a law professor, but still he feels compelled to speak out.
Mr. AYMAN NOUR (Former Lawmaker): (Through translator) We want to claim our rights respectfully, because it is our right to be part of the decision-making process in this country.
KENYON: Mohammad Kamal, a political scientist at Cairo University and NDP advisory committee member, says there is no policy of harassing the opposition, including Ayman Nour.
Professor MOHAMMAD KAMAL (Political Scientist, Cairo University): Maybe the question that he doesn't ask himself is whether this cause is popular among Egyptians or not.
KENYON: Kamal says the NDP has learned lessons from 2005 and has launched major anti-poverty and infrastructure projects across the country. The results, he believes, will show in the coming elections.
Prof. KAMAL: There will always be a protest vote. But maybe - and instead of going to the Muslim Brotherhood, it might go to other opposition candidate or other opposition political parties.
KENYON: 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 here that Hosni Mubarak, who once said he would serve Egypt, quote, "until the last breath," has given no indication that he won't stand for yet another six-year term.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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