CAIRO, Egypt—Twenty-five years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat catapulted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to power, America's most important Arab ally is facing another uncertain transition, one that will help determine whether democracy or Islamic radicalism is on the march in the Middle East.
Mubarak has defied critics who predicted that the little-known former air force officer would be a transitional figure. He's steered the most populous Arab nation on a meandering middle course between democracy and dictatorship, and between the U.S.—which gives Egypt some $2 billion a year in aid—and Arab or Islamic radicalism.
Now, facing his own mortality and mounting criticism for his country's chronic poverty, corruption and human rights abuses and for policies that critics charge are too friendly to Israel and the West, Mubarak, 78, appears to be grooming his youngest son, Gamal, 42, or perhaps intelligence chief Omer Suleiman, to succeed him.
Mubarak senior and junior have denied repeatedly that Gamal Mubarak has any intention of succeeding his father, but the younger Mubarak has been rising within the ruling National Democratic Party since 2002, and he's begun appearing at official events, including one with President Bush.
Critics are asking many of the same questions that they asked when the elder Mubarak took over after extremists now allied with al-Qaida killed Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981:
_Could Gamal Mubarak, who lacks his father's ties to the military, maintain order in the face of the challenge from militant Islam?
_Can Egypt's next leader maintain the country's uneasy peace with Israel in the face of rising anger at Israel's policies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, U.S. policies in the Muslim world and the absence of any progress toward a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians?
_Will Egypt become more democratic or more dictatorial?
Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt under emergency law since 1981, and critics charge that he's stifled civil society, suppressed dissent and perhaps fueled the pressure for radical change by blocking progress toward democracy.
"We've turned into a police state because of the emergency law," said Mohammed el Sayed Saied, the deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Mubarak has a tight grip that has abolished all means of participation from his people."
Mubarak "started as a president with little legitimacy and support, and so he needed to do a lot to win the love and trust of the people who knew nothing of him. But since he is a military man and was fast able to lean on his cronies in the armed forces, the need to continue to give concession after concession waned," said Gasser Abdel-Razek, a human rights activist. "It's much easier to be a dictator."
"I would say the most important achievements were internal stability and peace with our neighbors," said Mohamed Kamal, a member of the policies secretariat of the National Democratic Party. "The president's term isn't over yet, and what he started was a very important process of constitutional amendments with positive impacts, all of which are moving Egypt forward on the path of democracy."
_Can the most populous Arab country build its economy fast enough and broadly enough to blunt radical Islam's appeal to younger people?
Electricity now reaches 99 percent of Egypt's cities and villages, compared with 13 percent when Mubarak first became president, according to a special edition of the government-backed newspaper Akhbar al Yom. Phone lines were extended to Egypt's 26 governorates, and 26 million people now subscribe to cell phone networks.
Critics say Egypt's problems overshadow Mubarak's accomplishments.
"We wouldn't applaud running water as a presidential achievement" anywhere else in the world, Abdel-Razek said.
"The country's accomplishments are not comparable to the drawbacks," said George Ishaq, the leader of the Kefaya opposition movement. "Government corruption has squandered at least $1.8 billion of Egypt's treasury. Worse still, unemployment is on the up and up and salaries have decreased by a staggering 28 percent during Mubarak's presidency."
(El-Naggar and Adwan are McClatchy special correspondents in Cairo.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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