An annual convention of Egypt's ruling party Saturday was overshadowed by recent, unprecedented opposition to the prospect that the son of the country's 81-year-old president could become the next leader.
For the first time, people close to the ruling system have suggested in recent weeks the need to consider alternatives as the next president. The comments suggest broader worries that the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, is not ready to be president, or that an attempt at father-son succession could cause instability in the Arab world's most populous country.
President Hosni Mubarak did not address the issue in his opening speech to the convention. But in an apparent attempt to deny any split between old and young, he praised the party's young leadership and an ambitious reform program spearheaded by Gamal Mubarak.
"The party's young members ... have a clear vision for the nation's future, and propose new ideas to deal with the reality," Hosni Mubarak said.
Several alternative candidates have been floated by opposition parties and the media in the past month, including Arab League chief Amr Moussa and the Egyptian head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed El-Baradei.
Such candidates appear to be a long shot, but the very fact they have been raised is significant. Egypt's politics are deeply opaque. Power is concentrated in Hosni Mubarak - who is also the supreme leader of the military - and little is known about how decisions are made.
Hosni Mubarak, looking trim and in good humor, strongly praised the party's young leaders, without naming his son, and encouraged them to prepare for 2010 parliamentary elections "with new ideas."
Egypt, a major U.S. ally and recipient of billions annually in American aid, has been ruled by the elder Mubarak for 28 years. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, but Hosni Mubarak has not yet said if he will run for another 6-year term.
One scenario is that he could step aside to let his son run - or alternatively, stay another term to lay more foundation for his son, a former banker now the party's policy chief.
But several prominent figures have shown rare, public signs of discontent recently.
Commentator Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a powerful confidant of Mubarak's two predecessors as president, recently called for the rewriting of the constitution and the creation of a transitional arrangement where a board of wise men would work on "rebuilding the state."
"The status quo will lead to dark chaos. This country is in a state of extreme tension," he told the independent al-Masry al-Youm newspaper.
Emadeddin Adeeb, an influential media tycoon close to the elder Mubarak, called on Mubarak to create a more open transition process.
Mubarak "can't leave the country heading toward the unknown," Adeeb told the independent Al-Shorouk daily last week.
Opponents say Gamal Mubarak is increasingly involved in designing policy, traveling around Egypt campaigning for support and planting supporters in political posts.
Opposition groups earlier this month launched a campaign to revive efforts, including possible street protests, against a father-son succession. Security agencies quashed protests four years ago against constitutional amendments seen as paving the way for the son.
In the halls of the convention Friday, the generational divide between Gamal Mubarak's followers and the party's old guard was visible. Gray-haired men in old-fashioned suits remain the majority, but are now mixed with 20- to 40-year-olds in sleeker outfits armed with iPhones.
Supporters of Gamal Mubarak seemed unconcerned by the succession debate.
"I have been visiting many villages and small towns all over Egypt and nobody raised this issue. It is an elite issue," said Mohamed Kamal, a party official. "We still have two years to get to the issue of presidential elections."