CAIRO, Egypt — The recent conflict in Gaza threw the spotlight on Egypt as a regional power broker whose leadership is essential to both the Arab world and the West.

And although political leadership has become a tired subject on the streets of the capital, the topic of succession enters many a conversation, the biggest concern being who will fill the shoes of the five-term president, Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak, turning 81 in May, has given few signals regarding the country's political future.

Unlike his predecessors, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak has resisted appointing a vice president who, following modern historical tradition here, would be likely to succeed him.

Mubarak was reelected in 2005 to a fifth term in a low-turnout election, and with speculation over whether he will seek a sixth term in 2011 or pass power to a pre-ordained successor, internal politics give some indication as to who might be waiting in the wings.

Most speculation currently swirls around the president's son Gamal Mubarak, who has risen rapidly through the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party since leaving the world of finance in London.

"I think especially if the transition happens during [Hosni] Mubarak's lifetime, Gamal will be the candidate," said Emad Gad, a senior researcher at the Egyptian think tank, the Ahram Center.

But for the younger Mubarak to take power after his father, he'll have to overcome some significant hurdles, one of which is to earn the nomination of the NDP, which is most likely to win the election.

To do this, Mubarak will have to earn the support of the parliament. In 2002, he was appointed to head the party's policy committee which, though low profile, carries significant influence within the workings of the government.

The other obstacle in Mubarak's way is the powerful Egyptian military. Since the founding of the republic in 1953, all four of Egypt's presidents have been products of the armed forces. Gamal Mubarak never served, leading analysts to speculate that the military won't allow someone from outside its ranks to assume power.

But the military may be the biggest wildcard since its leadership operates in secrecy, usually outside the media spotlight.

"It is very difficult to discuss these things," Gad said. "No one really knows what the military is thinking or what the military will do."

Informed speculation over issues of succession is made more challenging by the fact that few within the NDP ranks are willing to wonder aloud about the future while Mubarak is still firmly entrenched as president.

Still, another name that continues to surface within political circles as a possible contender is Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian Intelligence Services.

Although Suleiman can check the military box, he is more than 70 years old, leading many to wonder whether his time has past.

The role of intelligence chief is often shrouded in secrecy, but Suleiman has been a long-serving adviser to Mubarak, who is known for making frequent shuffles within his ranks, and he has taken an unusually public role in dealing with international diplomacy.

Most recently, Suleiman publicly engaged in negotiations aimed at brokering a cease-fire in the latest conflict in Gaza.

There are other considerations.

Mubarak made waves in 2005, when he led the parliament to pass Constitutional Article 76.

Coming in the midst of President George W. Bush's doctrine of democratizing the Middle East, Article 76 ordered that presidential elections should, for the first time in history, be multiparty. Up until the passage of the article, challengers to the sitting president had to run as independents.

Critics blasted the high standards Article 76 set for nomination, claiming that no one outside the NDP would likely be eligible.

"Now only the parties that have enough seats in the National Assembly and a certain number of the local councils can be nominated for the new elections," Gad said.

Most damagingly, though, Article 76 set tougher, if not impossible, standards for independent candidates.

"They did that to stop the so-called illegal parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, from running," Gad noted.

When democracy activist Ayman Nour ran as an independent in the 2005 presidential elections, he received little popular support. Still, he was jailed on charges of political fraud, a move that many saw as an effort by Mubarak to clamp down on the opposition.

The Muslim Brotherhood has also emerged as a strong player in the country's political system in recent years. It earned 88 seats in 454-member parliament in the 2005 election, stunning many in the international community.

Few expect the Muslim Brotherhood to be in serious contention for the presidency in 2011, but its surge in popularity has many in the political establishment on alert.

Ahead of the 2011 presidential elections, the country will hold local and parliamentary elections next year.

"We will see which political parties can get enough seats to contend in the presidential election," said Gad, adding that if smaller parties succeed in gaining support, there may be pressure on the establishment to allow more candidates into the presidential pool the following year.

More by Theodore May:

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A World of Trouble

A smuggler's paradise

Gaza conflict creates another broken generation


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