In early March, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew to Germany, where he underwent gallbladder surgery.

That an 81-year-old man would have serious health problems was not unusual. But the fact that the intensely private Mubarak publicly announced his infirmity was so remarkable that it has led to a widespread belief in Egypt that his nearly 29-year reign is drawing to a close.

Speculation already had been intense over who would next rule Egypt, the United States’s most important Arab ally and Israel’s indispensable peace partner. A presidential election is scheduled for 2011, and it appears likely that Mohamed ElBaradei, the highly respected former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, will challenge either Mubarak, if he runs again, or, more likely, Mubarak’s son, Gamal.

Egyptian election law makes it highly probable that Mubarak or his designated successor will claim victory yet again. Even so, the prospect of an end to Mubarak’s presidency, coupled with the arrival of a serious challenger like ElBaradei, has produced a political effervescence the likes of which Cairo has not seen in decades.

Much is at stake for Egypt and Egyptians. The election has the possibility of being the first presidential race between equal contenders, offering a breakthrough toward real democracy. And it will be an opportunity to restore some of the Nile Valley nation’s stature in the Arab world.

Since Islamic extremists assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egypt has witnessed a humiliating decline in its influence in Arab politics, scholarship and the media. Even its sitcoms and soap operas, long the standard fare in Arab households, are being eclipsed by Syrian and non-Arab Turkish ones.

ElBaradei, 67, represents the best hope in a long time for Egypt to revitalize its stultifying political system, dominated for more than half a century by military figures and ubiquitous security services. The balding, bespectacled ElBaradei, like Sadat, is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and enjoys an international stature that could propel Egypt back onto the center stage of Arab politics.

Mubarak, who barely escaped being assassinated with Sadat, has proved to be a cautious plodder with no tolerance for risk and an obsession with his regime’s security and stability. These traits have kept him from tackling mounting social and economic problems, made worse by rapid population growth.

Only after more than two decades in power did Mubarak allow free marketers to take control of the economy. As a result of the economic reforms directed by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the economy saw an unprecedented 7.2% growth rate last year.

Yet the boom has seen precious little trickle-down to the 40% of the population still living on less than $2 a day. In fact, the gap between rich and poor has grown to alarming proportions, as the country’s newly wealthy elite has fled the din, dirt and traffic gridlock of Cairo for American-style gated communities in the desert just outside the capital.

Abroad, Mubarak has failed to impress. The unresolved fate of the Palestinians – an issue the 1979 peace treaty negotiated between Sadat and prime minister Menachem Begin was meant to resolve long ago – weighs heavily on his credibility in the Arab world. He also has been unable, despite years of mediation, to reconcile feuding Palestinian factions.

The boldest Arab peace initiative in recent years has come not from Egypt but from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, author of the Arab League’s 2002 offer to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state based on the borders existing before the Six Day War.

And the most active mediator of regional intra-Arab disputes has proved to be the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, whose imaginative rulers have repeatedly hosted peace conferences for feuding factions from war-battered Lebanon and Sudan as well as the Palestinians.

Mubarak’s main preoccupation has been to contain the popular Muslim Brotherhood in his own country, especially after he allowed the group to run candidates in the 2005 parliamentary elections and, to his great alarm, its members won 88 of 454 seats to become the main opposition bloc.

Now, with elections scheduled for October, Mubarak has set loose his highly efficient security services to eliminate any Muslim Brotherhood threat to his ruling National Democratic Party. Since January, about 350 local and national leaders have been imprisoned on various charges, including five of 16 members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s top guidance council.

Mubarak is moving fast to suppress challenges from other quarters as well. This month, 41 pro-democracy and human rights groups issued a statement alerting the international community to a new bill before parliament that would drastically curtail their monitoring activities and establish “unprecedented control over civil society.”

Into this repressive atmosphere has stepped ElBaradei, who returned on February 19 after three decades abroad,  to test the political waters and rally support for a possible presidential candidacy. By all accounts, he constitutes the most serious challenge yet to the Mubarak family’s grip on power.

ElBaradei stayed just long enough to form a National Front for Change aimed specifically at amending constitutional requirements that make it almost impossible for him to run. The rules require presidential candidates to collect signatures from 65 members of the People’s Assembly, 25 from the consultative Shura Council and 10 members from all municipal councils – all bodies controlled by the NDP.

The chances of Egypt holding anything approaching truly competitive parliamentary and presidential elections still appear dim. According to NDP insiders, the net effect of the ElBaradei factor has been to make it more likely Mubarak will stand for yet another term in 2011, if he is physically capable.

Such a prognosis casts serious doubts on hopes that a new democratic era is dawning. (The Los Angeles Times)

The writer was the Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief from 1981-85. He recently returned from a trip to Egypt and is the author of “The Arab Tomorrow” in the current issue of the Wilson Quarterly.

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