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Upcoming wedding of President Hosni Mubarak's son to be political plan

The upcoming wedding of President Hosni Mubarak's son is just one more part of an elaborate plan to have him succeed his father in power.

The prospect of Gamal Mubarak becoming president has sparked widespread opposition among Egyptians, underlining deep uncertainty over the future of this key U.S. ally. The elder Mubarak has marginalized any real challengers, and no one besides his son has emerged as a likely candidate.

For years, father and son have denied any succession plans, even as Gamal has risen swiftly to become the most powerful figure in the ruling party, leading a program of economic liberalization. Many view nearly every step the government takes as part of the plan for "tawreeth," Arabic for "handing down the inheritance."

On the political side, critics say, the government's controversial democratic reforms, including changes to the constitution last month, have served to pave the way for Gamal to step in when the time comes.

Gamal's wedding set for May 4, Hosni Mubarak's 79th birthday aims to cover the social side, they say, ensuring he conforms with the family-man status expected of an Arab leader.

The fact that the 43-year-old former investment banker has gone this long unwed has fueled his image as out of step with Egyptian society, where men are expected to be married in their 20s or early 30s.

Not that the nuptials have given Gamal a more down-to-earth image. The bride, Khadiga el-Gamal, is the 24-year-old blonde daughter of a wealthy businessman, and the wedding is being held in the upscale Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"Congratulations to the groom, you who are getting us as your inheritance," popular protest poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote in a recent sarcastic ode to the president's son. "Groom of the nation ... we know what you're up to."

Despite official denials, a father-son succession appears more of a certainty among members of the ruling National Democratic Party, where Gamal holds the post of deputy leader.

In the past year, debate within the party has moved beyond whether Gamal should succeed his father to how best to carry it out, said an NDP official close to the president's son. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the party's inner workings.

"Everything that has been done is aimed at facilitating the transition of power to Gamal Mubarak," said Rabab el-Mahdi, an opposition activist and a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo.

The United States, Egypt's top ally, has not weighed in on the succession issue, saying it's a matter for Egyptians to decide. But it has hosted Gamal Mubarak at the White House and last year President George W. Bush praised members of the Egyptian Cabinet who are close to the son as "young reformers."

"He has impressed a lot of people in the West as a competent and articulate figure," Rosemary Hollis, Director of Research at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said of Mubarak. "But his possible succession has increased cynicism among Egyptians about the West's commitment to democracy in the Middle East."

Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled for a quarter century, has four more years left in his six-year term in office. One scenario is that Gamal would be the ruling party's candidate for president in the next election, expected in 2011.

But the controversial constitutional amendments passed last month in a hasty referendum have raised another possibility. One change provided for the prime minister to fill in as president if the incumbent dies or is incapacitated raising speculation that the son will be appointed premier as a stepping stone.

Other amendments sideline the Muslim Brotherhood the only opposition movement that could realistically challenge the ruling party at the polls and critics say some of the amendments give the government a freer hand to fix voting.

A father-son succession would be a dramatic political change in Egypt, where the legitimacy of the regime has rested heavily on the 1952 military coup that ended the monarchy. Significantly, Gamal Mubarak did not rise through the ranks of the armed forces, unlike Hosni Mubarak and his three predecessors, raising questions whether the army would accept him as leader.

The move would also draw comparisons to Syria, where President Bashar Assad succeeded his father Hafez in 2000.

The younger Mubarak has been touted by supporters as a voice of reform. He has led a campaign to modernize the party and installed a number of businessmen in key ministries to lead a policy of economic liberalization.

But he is a tough sell to the public. Educated at the exclusive AUC, he is criticized as too close to big businessmen and as the product of a privileged upbringing, far from the lives of most in the impoverished country.

"The man doesn't know Egypt," Ibrahim Eissa, a harsh critic of the Mubarak regime, wrote in an April 2 column in the independent newspaper Al-Destour. "How can we allow him to rule Egypt?"