Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's 82-year-old president, dodged a question on Wednesday on who his successor might be, saying only God could decide who would lead the Arab world's most populous nation following his 29-year rule.
Uncertainty over Egypt's political future is intensifying ahead of presidential polls next year. Mubarak, who took power in 1981, has not said whether he will run for a sixth term in presidential polls next year, but if he does not many Egyptians assume his 46-year-old son Gamal would be a top contender.
Mubarak, whose health has been in question since recent surgery in Germany, appeared taken aback by a question from a journalist during a press conference next to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"Who knows? Who knows? Only God knows who will be my successor," Mubarak said in English when he was asked who would prefer as a successor.
When the reporter repeated his question, Mubarak pointed to the sky and replied: "Whoever God prefers, I prefer."
"That's a nice question though," he added, smiling.
Mubarak (L) and Berlusconi in Rome (Photo: AP)
It was an echo of an exchange in March when, during a visit to Germany, Mubarak bristled when a reporter asked whether Mohammed ElBaradei, the former boss of the UN nuclear agency who has said he might run for president, was an Egyptian hero.
"We do not need a national hero, here or there," Mubarak replied.
Posing such a question directly to the president would be striking in Egypt, where despite increased press freedoms in recent years, media self-censorship is widespread and reporters would be unlikely to ask Mubarak such a direct question.
Analysts say election rules make it almost impossible for any candidate to stage a realistic challenge against whoever is nominated by Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition party, is officially banned and its leaders say they do not plan to put forward any affiliated candidates for president.
There is speculation that other insider candidates might trump Mubarak's son if the president decides he is not well enough to run, including the country's intelligence chief or the defense minister.
Rights groups routinely complain that the Egyptian government has rigged elections in its favor and used a long-standing emergency law to cow a weak, divided opposition.