U.S. and Western intelligence agencies assess that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is terminally ill, and the Obama administration is closely watching the expected transition of power in a nation that for decades has been an anchor of stability in the volatile Middle East and a key U.S. ally.
Mr. Mubarak on Sunday held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East conflict, George J. Mitchell; and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
Nonetheless, the 82-year-old Egyptian leader is thought by most Western intelligence agencies to be dying from terminal cancer affecting his stomach and pancreas.
Earlier this month, several Arab and Hebrew newspapers reported that Mr. Mubarak recently sought treatment for his ailment at a hospital in France. A senior Egyptian government official interviewed for this article said those reports were “without any factual basis whatsoever.”
There are, however, other indications that Mr. Mubarak’s health is failing. In March, the Egyptian leader traveled to Germany for what at the time was said to be gallbladder surgery, a treatment that took him out of action for six weeks, according to a special report on Egypt in the current issue of the Economist.
An intelligence officer from a Central European service told The Washington Times last week that his service estimates that the Egyptian president will be dead within a year, and before Cairo’s scheduled presidential elections in September 2011.
Both the National Intelligence Council and the U.S. Central Command have tasked intelligence analysts to start gaming out scenarios after Mr. Mubarak’s death and how his passing will affect the transition of power, according to three U.S. officials.
Steven Cook, a senior fellow and Egyptian-affairs specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that when he was in the Egyptian capital two months ago, several interlocutors told him the leader was not well.
“When I was in Cairo in May, it was interesting. People were mellow about the prospect of him being ill. Everyone understood the end was near; the estimates were 12 to 18 months,” Mr. Cook said.
He said he heard that an entire floor of the military hospital in the Cairo neighborhood of Mahdi was prepared to treat him. He also said, “I heard that they pump him up with something that makes him able to function, so he can do these meetings and go to these public events.”
A senior U.S. intelligence officer said: “We have access to, for lack of a better word, his court. We know he is dying, but we don’t know when he will die. You can be dying for a long time, by the way. Look at [former Cuban President Fidel] Castro.”
State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley has addressed questions about Mr. Mubarak’s health in the daily briefings at Foggy Bottom.
“No one is looking past Mubarak. He is still the president of Egypt, and we rely on him and his government for the critical role they play in security and stability in the Middle East,” Mr. Crowley said in an interview. “He is still the president, and he still plays a vital role.”
Mr. Mubarak became president after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by terrorists linked to a faction of the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood that later became Egyptian Islamic Jihad under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahri, the current No. 2 leader of al Qaeda.
The Sadat assassination sparked a wave of unrest in Egypt and a harsh government crackdown against Islamic radicals. Ultimately, order was restored, and Mr. Mubarak, a former air force pilot and vice president, assumed power and ruled over Egypt using an emergency law that has snuffed out any competitive political opposition. Mr. Mubarak in May renewed the emergency law for two more years.
Mr. Mubarak has also enforced the “cold peace” that Sadat signed with Israel in 1979, and he proved a valuable American ally in the peace process of the 1990s.
His General Intelligence Service, led by Omar Suleiman, played a key role in training the preventive security services for the Palestinian Authority during and after the Oslo peace process. At regional Arab League summits, Mr. Mubarak was almost always a voice and a vote against the more anti-American currents in Middle Eastern politics.
In 2007, Mr. Mubarak pushed a new law through Egypt’s People’s Assembly that would make the speaker of the assembly president for 60 days while he oversaw arrangements for a special election. The new law requires anyone standing for that election to be in the leadership of a political party for at least one year.
While Mr. Mubarak has declined to endorse a successor, the new law on presidential succession provides a major advantage to Mr. Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, 47. The younger Mr. Mubarak is head of the powerful policy committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), the party that has led Egypt’s government for more than 50 years.
Other potential military rivals to Gamal Mubarak, whose nickname is “Jimmy” in U.S. policymaking circles and among the Egyptian elite such as Mr. Suleiman, are not formal members of the NDP.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is campaigning to end the emergency law and open the Egyptian political system to more competition, would also not qualify to run for president if Mr. Mubarak dies in the next year.
“There is a very serious and precise process for presidential elections and presidential succession if the sitting president becomes incapacitated,” said a senior Egyptian government official. “That process is competitive, and the notion that it is somehow predetermined is completely false.”
Despite the new rules, Egypt has faced political ferment in recent months to open up the political process through the emergence of Mr. ElBaradei, who provides Egypt’s opposition with a figure who has international recognition. Mr. ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
“Mubarak has been president of Egypt for 30 years, and this will be an historic event when it occurs,” a senior State Department official said of Mr. Mubarak’s anticipated demise. “You have Gamal Mubarak as a prospective replacement, but you also have ElBaradei as someone who is prepared to compete for the presidency under specific circumstances.”
The official said the Egyptian government will face a historic decision after Mr. Mubarak dies, and ultimately it will have to account for the wishes of the Egyptian people for more openness after years of authoritarian rule.
“In some ways, the presidential campaign has already started,” the official said. “This is different than the dynamic you see in other countries. There is some open space in Egyptian society, but there is not yet enough to enable a genuinely competitive election among candidates, where more than one have a true opportunity to win.”
Frank Wisner, a U.S. ambassador to Egypt between 1986 and 1991, said he had faith in the process of transition already established by the 2007 amendments to the constitution.
“I don’t know who is going to succeed the president. I have no idea the exact formula that will be followed,” Mr. Wisner said. “I assume the successor to the president of Egypt is someone we know. I don’t know what his name is, but I know he will seek Egyptian stability and seek the friendship with the United States that has dominated Egypt’s approach in the Mubarak era.”
In recent months, some bipartisan former government officials and analysts who call themselves the Working Group on Egypt started meeting with senior officials in the Obama administration to make the case for a U.S. policy of encouraging democratic reforms.
Brian Katulis, a scholar at the Center for American Progress and a member of the working group, said: “We all know some sort of change is happening in Egypt, whether it is Mubarak’s departure from the scene, or more ferment on the Internet. There is an opportunity from a U.S. policy perspective.”
Mr. Katulis said, for example, the State Department’s Internet freedom initiative could be helpful in opening up Egyptian society. But he also said he has seen Foreign Service officers resistant to too much change in traditional U.S. policy of supporting Egypt and keeping relatively quiet about domestic repression. Egypt is, after Israel, the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid. It receives more than $1.5 billion annually.
The Obama administration ended support for a small fund operated by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that supported groups promoting Egyptian democracy and that bypassed any clearance from the Egyptian government.
In May, the Working Group on Egypt wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, urging her to press Mr. Mubarak to lift the emergency law and replace it with a more limited anti-terrorism law.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Mr. Cook said he supports some pressure from the U.S. government on Egypt to move toward democracy. But he also warned that a competitive election after the death of Mr. Mubarak could force the candidates to compete to be more anti-Israel. That could possibly damage the peace treaty between the two countries. “You don’t want a situation where you force candidates to cater to extremists,” he said.
Martin Kramer, a scholar at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center and an analyst on Egypt, however, said that he predicted the peace deal between Israel and Egypt would outlast Mr. Mubarak’s presidency.
“Egypt has kept the peace deal with Israel through the wars with Lebanon and through intifadas,” Mr. Kramer said. “They sometimes pull the ambassador; they sometimes send him back. This is not a feature of Hosni Mubarak. This reflects the Egyptian state interest and is very likely to outlast Mubarak.”
• Eli Lake can be reached at email@example.com.
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