CAIRO — A senior official with Egypt's ruling party said Thursday that President Hosni Mubarak would seek another term in office next year, the clearest indication yet that the ailing strongman plans to extend his 29-year grip on the Arab world's most populous nation.
"The next president is President Hosni Mubarak," Alieddin Hilal, a spokesman for Mubarak's National Democratic Party, said in an interview on Alhurra, an Arabic-language satellite channel funded by the U.S. government.
The announcement had been widely expected. Mubarak, 82, a staunch U.S. ally, has shown few signs of relinquishing his near-total hold on power. He's barred official foreign observers from next month's parliamentary elections, and he recently imposed a fresh set of restrictions on independent media and opposition politicians.
Still, earlier comments by party officials and concerns over Mubarak's health — he underwent gall bladder surgery in Germany in March — had left room for speculation about the president's intentions. Many observers think that he's grooming his 46-year-old son, Gamal, to succeed him.
Mubarak, who'd be seeking a sixth term, earlier this year renewed a three-decade emergency law that restricts free speech and allows security services broad powers to arrest people without charge and hold them indefinitely. Campaign and election laws are tilted heavily in favor of Mubarak's party.
Earlier this year, Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., drafted a Senate resolution that called on Mubarak to repeal the emergency law and ensure free and fair parliamentary elections, and they urged the Obama administration to put more pressure on the regime to expand democratic freedoms.
Michele Dunne, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research center, said the Obama administration wouldn't call on Mubarak to step aside for fear of jeopardizing relations with an important ally.
"I think there is growing concern in Washington," Dunne said. "But the U.S. administration would be very reluctant to say anything directly about the succession. ... They would call for a more open political electoral process, but they will make sure not to appear to favor any specific candidate."
With the presidential election still a year off, however, Dunne said that it was too early to know Mubarak's real plans and that the party's announcements were meant to show that Mubarak remains in control.
Hilal, the party spokesman, said the party would formally nominate Mubarak next August or September, with the election provisionally scheduled for next October.
Amid a string of firings and arrests targeting the press and opposition politicians, media watchdog groups charge that Mubarak's regime is trying to silence critics ahead of the Nov. 28 parliamentary elections.
More than 160 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest parliamentary bloc after the ruling party, have been arrested since the group announced that it would field candidates in the elections. The group is officially banned by the government, but its candidates won 88 parliamentary seats in the last elections, in 2005, by running as independents.
"We need a new era to begin," said Ali Abdelfattah, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "We've already experienced 29 years of Mubarak, during which time none of his promises of prosperity for the Egyptian people came true."
Earlier this month, firebrand journalist Ibrahim Eissa, an outspoken critic of the regime, was fired as the editor in chief of the independent daily newspaper al Dustour. A satellite television program that Eissa hosts was taken off the air, as was a program on a Saudi-owned channel that recently criticized state media as praising Gamal Mubarak excessively.
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent. Bengali reported from Nairobi, Kenya.)
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