Reporter's Notebook: Mr. Mubarak and Egypt's cloudy future
CAIRO – "Mr. Mubarak will not die," a balding barber announces after I ask him what kind of future Egypt has following the rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
His client, an elderly man dressed in a sharp business suit, turns around abruptly and after quizzing me, chides sternly: "It is forbidden in Egypt to talk about the life of the president!"
"Mr. Mubarak," who celebrated his 81st birthday last week, is as active and involved in regional politics as ever. This week, the president of the most populous Arab nation flew to the Red Sea resort of Sharm e-Sheikh to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and he will be meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington later this month.
Mubarak’s intensive efforts in the international realm during his 28-year rule – including his efforts to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians and more recently to contain Iranian influence in the region – have not gone unnoticed by his people.
And it is largely due to these efforts that some Egyptian citizens are hopeful that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who is chairman of the ruling party’s powerful policies committee, will eventually assume his father’s post.
"If Gamal Mubarak becomes president, then I wouldn’t worry because he will follow the path of his father," says Sally Mahmoud, a 23-year-old language teacher who lives in Cairo. "As long as the relations with America are good, there is no problem. Can you deny that America controls the world?"
While wages are very low in Egypt and the rate of poverty is high, "issues of foreign affairs – relations with America, Israel and other nations – are very good," she says. Mubarak "is really protecting Egypt from everything."
Besides, she says, "the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t know."
Hisham Oraby, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, agrees, saying he wouldn’t mind if Gamal ultimately becomes president. In fact, he believes it is just a matter of time before the son takes the reins from his father.
"Okay, there is no democracy, but there is no war" either, he says. "You must compromise on some things to get other things."
But many other Egyptians say they do not want their country to become "a monarchy," and want the right to freely choose their leader in the event that Hosni Mubarak does not run again.
"We want new blood," says bookstore owner Hisham Yousef. "The Egyptian people are tired of social, economic and material pressure… [But] the National Democratic Party is the ruling party. Any other leader of a party other than the ruling party will never succeed."
At a nearby café, Hanaa Mahmoud, 42, says she hopes someone other than Gamal Mubarak will follow President Mubarak, mainly because of financial hardship.
"The situation is terrible," she says, as she puffs on a cigarette and sips a hot drink. "I haven’t been able to find work for years. There is no work, there is no money. We can’t live. We can’t get married."
Mahmoud, who is single, says she borrows money from her sister for food and other daily necessities.
At a nearby nut store, Mahmoud Azeem says "it would be a disaster" if Gamal inherits the presidency from his father.
Azeem is rooting for Arab League chief Amr Moussa – once the country’s minister of foreign affairs – to become president in the future, since "he’s respectable, understands politics, economics and everything."
In second place, he says, would be Ayman Nour, the political dissident who was jailed after challenging Mubarak in the 2005 elections, and released unexpectedly earlier this year, perhaps as a gesture to US President Barack Obama.
But an editor-in-chief of an Egyptian newspaper, who asks that his name be withheld, says he prefers the rule of Hosni Mubarak "because he is wise and does not rush into things."
He also managed to avoid war with Israel for nearly three decades, the editor adds.
Concerning Mubarak’s son Gamal, he says, "his personality and his policies are not yet clear."
But one thing, he says, is certain.
"Gamal will not become president without the vote of the people," he says, as we speak at a popular juice shop in downtown Cairo. "The [Egyptian] people are very stubborn. They will not allow him to become president unless they really want him."