Mubarak — Egypt’s veteran ruler faces up to reform

CAIRO — After 24 years as Egyptian president where his grip on power has been almost unchallenged, Hosni Mubarak will have to face up to unprecedented demands for reform if he wins a historic fifth term.
Mubarak — one of the longest serving leaders in the Arab world — moved to take on the mantle of reform as he finally announced his candidature for presidential elections in front of hundreds of adoring supporters in his home village.

But while the 77-year-old Egyptian leader has been promoting cautious change, the opposition has claimed that amendments to the election law to allow for the first contested elections still make it impossible to mount a serious challenge.

Under pressure from crucial ally the United States, Mubarak has been vowing to implement additional democratic reforms should he win the September 7 multi-candidate vote.

So far the only serious challenges to his power have been against his own person — one of the great survivors of modern Arab politics, Mubarak has lived to tell the tale after six assassination attempts.

“My vision for the future will be realised with steps that will conclude the development of our democracy,” he said in the televised address broadcast from his former high school in Kufr Musalha, north of Cairo, once again showing his keen sense of political symbolism.

Egypt has seen the emergence of new opposition groups in the past year and a half such as the pro-reform platform Kefaya (Enough) and the centre-right party Ghad (Tomorrow) whose chief Ayman Nur said he would challenge Mubarak. Egypt’s traditional opposition parties and its largest opposition force, the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, have joined calls for reforms and for lifting the state of emergency dating back to Mubarak’s first term in 1981. Mubarak said in his speech that the emergency laws would be lifted after a new anti-terror law is drafted though he did not say when.

Himself a deputy of Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, he took over when the former president was assassinated in 1981 and was reelected in 1987, 1993 and 1999.

Besides being compelled to reform, commentators predict that Mubarak could devote much of his last tenure to preparing fairer elections in 2011. He could also further groom his 42-year-old son Gamal for succession, though the move has been met with vocal popular opposition.

Mubarak has always been said to lead a healthy life and was once known for enjoying an almost daily game of squash on his private palace court. But his reputation as a vigorous septuagenarian was dented when he underwent surgery for a slipped disc last June and suffered a small health scare while delivering a televised speech the year before.

The father of two is married to half-Welsh Suzanne but has kept his private life carefully guarded, instead choosing to craft himself an image as father of the nation.

Large portraits of the burly leader, with his jet-black combed back hair and aquiline nose, adorn public buildings and tower above the country’s motorways, while his every move is religiously reported in the mainstream press.

He followed the programme of economic liberalisation launched by Sadat, but social inequalities have grown during his tenure and poverty is rife among the 72-million-strong population.

Mubarak has so far crushed in the bud any political challenge, astutely alternating crackdowns against his opponents with conciliatory measures.

His tough stance against Islamists following a wave of terror attacks in the mid-nineties and his choice to continue his predecessor’s policy of peace with Israel have earned him brownie points with Washington.

He has vowed to press his battle against terror following a triple bombing attack in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh on July 7 that left at least 67 dead, among them foreign tourists.

With Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and Israel’s Ariel Sharon, Mubarak is one of the last of a generation of leaders who witnesses all the wars and developments that shaped the region.

His 24 years in power also make him the longest-serving ruler in Egypt since Mohammed Ali, who founded the country’s last dynasty of khedives in the early 19th century.

Born on May 4, 1928 in the Munufiya governorate, he graduated from the military and air force academies. He worked his way up the air force hierarchy and held posts abroad before becoming chief of staff of the country’s air force and, in 1972, commander of the air force.

Tasked with rebuilding the air force after the defeat of the Six-Day War in 1967, he played a key role in the decision to launch the Yom Kippur in 1973.

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