A top ruling party official has given the strongest indication to date that Egypt's 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak will seek another six-year term of office in elections next year despite recent health troubles and speculation he's grooming his son for power.
Mubarak, who with nearly 30 years in office is already Egypt's longest serving ruler in nearly two centuries, would be almost 90 if he serves another full term. His health has been the subject of intense speculation after he had surgery this year to remove his gall bladder and a benign growth in the lining of his small intestine.
Mubarak, a former air force pilot and a close U.S. ally, has since sought to dispel speculation, with a busy work schedule, including foreign travel, strenuous field visits and meetings with visiting dignitaries _ all covered extensively by state media. He has looked relatively fit, despite significant weight loss after his operation in Germany seven months ago.
The comments by Alieddin Hilal of the National Democratic Party do not constitute the final word on Mubarak's plans. But Hilal is the latest of several top party figures to indicate Mubarak intends to run.
"The next president is President Hosni Mubarak," Hilal, who often acts as the party's spokesman, said in an interview with the U.S.-funded Alhurra television.
"The candidate of the party, come next August or September, will be President Hosni Mubarak," he said, according to excerpts of the interview released by Alhurra Thursday.
Mubarak himself has stayed publicly silent on his intentions. Many in Egypt believe he is grooming his son, Gamal, to eventually succeed him. That has raised the possibility he might choose not to run next year, opening the candidacy for the 46-year-old Gamal, who has over the past decade rapidly risen through the ranks of the party to become one of its top leaders.
Hilal's comments, however, seemed to rule out that scenario.
Many Egyptian political commentators have pointed to a possible split within the party leadership over Gamal Mubarak's ambitions _ with his supporters, mostly wealthy businessmen hoping to benefit even more if he becomes president, pushing for a succession sooner rather than later, and a small but powerful clique of older politicians tied closely to the father who are seen as reluctant.
But Gihad Auda, a senior ruling party official, denied any feuding over the succession question, saying that a "growing consensus" has emerged within the party that the elder Mubarak should be its 2011 candidate.
"What Alieddin Hilal told Alhurra is the party's official position," said Auda, a U.S.-educated political science professor who sits on the party's key Policies Committee, which is led by Gamal Mubarak.
Hosni Mubarak never appointed a vice president, further complicating the question of who will succeed him. He was Anwar Sadat's vice president when the late leader was gunned down by Muslim militants during a military parade in Cairo in 1981. He then became president and has held the office ever since.
He had ruled Egypt unchallenged until 2005, when multicandidate elections were allowed for the first time. However, requirements introduced to the constitution by his ruling party severely limit who can run in next year's vote, making a comfortable win for the ruling party candidate a virtually foregone conclusion.
Amr Hamzawy, an Egypt expert from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, hinged the chances of Mubarak serving another term in office on his health.
"He will be the ruling party's candidate so long he is in reasonably good health," he said.
"To be fair to the man, he works hard so long as he is well, but we also must consider that he no longer has the same energy levels he had during his first or second term in office."
Egypt's leading democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, says he will only run for president if restrictions on who can run are relaxed. He also has called on politicians and voters to boycott next month's parliamentary elections because the conditions for a free vote have deteriorated since 2005.
ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says a boycott would deny the regime legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, has decided to contest the election.
Voting in Egypt is routinely marred by fraud, but the government has consistently rejected calls for international supervision, arguing that it would amount to an infringement of its sovereignty.
Authorities have also recently cracked down on independent media outlets and arrested scores of Brotherhood activists, moves widely seen to be designed to silence dissent ahead of the Nov. 28 vote.
Mubarak's rule has seen the most populous Arab nation enjoy its longest peacetime spell since a series of wars with Israel started in 1948, adopt a market economy and modernize the country's ailing infrastructure.
But the country has also beset by a host of seemingly intractable problems _ increasing poverty, corruption, a rapidly growing population, high unemployment and social disparities. A simmering level of discontent has added urgency to government attempts to keep things smooth, particularly if there is eventually a transfer of power.
Hilal, the ruling party official, insisted there was no cause for concern.
"Any transfer of power will be peaceful and according to the constitution and within the framework of political and constitutional institutions," he told Alhurra.