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President's son gains new prominence as Egypt's elections near
Updated: 2005-09-01 21:13

As President Hosni Mubarak was swarmed by farmers during a campaign stop in this tiny village, shaking hands and pledging agriculture reforms, an elegant, tall man stood silently behind him, directing the scene.

The man pointed out to Mubarak's bodyguards a clump of people they should disperse. He whispered into the ear of an aide, telling him to bring two farmers reciting poetry to Cairo for use in another campaign stop.

Then he gave a wink to Mubarak, signaling to his father: It's time to leave.

Gamal Mubarak, the president's youngest son, appears more powerful than ever as Egypt prepares for presidential elections next week, steering not only his father campaign, but also leading a silent revolution inside the ruling party's ranks.

The election crowns the 41-year-old Gamal's drive to move aside the old guard in the National Democratic Party and establish his circle of younger, more Western-minded businessmen and technocrats who say they want greater democracy and reform in a country that has seen one-party rule since 1952.

That has made Gamal Mubarak a favorite of the United States in its hopes for smooth change in one of its top Mideast allies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputies have made a point of meeting Gamal and his circle during visits here _ and American officials repeatedly point to the ruling party's "pro-reform camp" as proof to believe change is coming.

But many are skeptical of Gamal Mubarak's "reform" credentials, saying the changes aim to ensure his father's 24-year hold on power. Mubarak faces competitors for the first time in the September 7 vote, but no one doubts he will overwhelmingly win re-election.

Many have long believed Mubarak is grooming Gamal to succeed him _ and the decision to hold multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time has done nothing to hush such talk.

The most outspoken opposition newspapers call Gamal "Egypt's de facto ruler," and some believe elections will be used to maneuver him into a future presidency.

"I am not optimistic at all over the new group because those who are calling themselves as 'reformists' are just worse than their predecessors," said Ahmed Sayyed el-Naggar, an economist at Cairo's al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Gamal's power comes only from his being the president's son, el-Naggar said.

The Associated Press was unable to interview the younger Mubarak despite several requests. Minders at events he attends prevent the press from approaching him.

Mubarak's six-year reform program _ drawn up by Gamal Mubarak and his clique _ promises to hand over some presidential power to the parliament and cabinet and to lift emergency laws in place since 1981.

Party insiders say Gamal Mubarak _ who lived nearly a decade in Britain, where he founded the investment company MidInvest_ was heavily influenced by the Labor Party's experiences there, and dreams of Egypt having a political system rotating power between two major political parties in a parliamentary system like Britain.

That would be a dramatic change for Egypt, where Mubarak's National Democratic Party has long held unquestioned control.

Gamal Mubarak's rise began in September 2000, when he and his circle succeeded in changing the internal constitution of byrules of the ruling party to form the Policies Secretariat, a committee to develop new policies.

Gamal, as the committee's head, seeded the party with his entourage. Among them were his spin doctor, political scientist Aly Eldin Helal; Ahmed Ezz, a multimillionaire businessman known as the "emperor of iron," as critics blame the rise of iron prices to his monopoly over Egypt's iron industry in Egypt; Rachid Mohammed Rachid, the newly appointed minister of foreign trade and industry and one of the giant businessman, and Mahmoud Mohieddin, who became investment minister and the engineer of privatization.

"During those five years, we ended up having a new political party, with new blood, new basic principles, new organizational structure," Helal told The Associated Press at a recent Mubarak campaign stop.

The latest Cabinet, created a year ago, als ois full of Gamal allies, including the prime minister and the powerful trade, information and finance ministers, who have been pushing economic changes such as a new tax law.

Gamal's circle is looking beyond the presidential vote, hoping parliament elections next month will increase their presence in the legislature, where the NDP holds 388 of 454 seats.

"We need articulate members of parliament to defend our cases," Mohieddin said recently.

Getting supporters into parliament means trying to sideline one powerful figure of the old guard, the party's deputy secretary-general Kamal el-Shazli, who usually picks party candidates in elections.

Gamal's rise has also threatened the dominance of Safwat el-Sherif, who served as information minister for two decades and is seen as the president's eyes and ears. El-Sherif was made NDP secretary-general, but Gamal's committee has encroached on some of the post's traditional powers.

Frictions have been clear during the campaign. While Gamal's allies largely control the television, el-Sherif retains his power over state-run newspapers, which a top Gamal ally Mohammad Kamal says are a "mess" because of their strongly pro-Mubarak coverage.

Gamal loyalists also dominate Mubarak's campaign machine _ although el-Sherif insists they were approved by a top committee he heads. He denies his authority has been diminished. "This is a myth," he told AP.

Still, there is much talk of a party shakeup post-election, in which el-Sherif would be replaced by Helal _ speculation that Gamal's camp has done nothing to dispel.

Beyond that, there is much talk about Gamal's next step. Some predict the 77-year-old Mubarak will not be able to complete his six-year term _ opening the way for his son.

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