Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak celebrated his 80th birthday Sunday. He has been in power for 27 years, and the question of who will succeed him has become a topic of intense speculation. The Egyptian leader is facing a wave of popular discontent, fueled partly by rising food prices, and the country's fragmented opposition is urging people to mark his birthday with a general strike. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.
Last year, when Mr. Mubarak turned 79, an activist who calls himself Ahmad Sherif posted a birthday message on the YouTube Web site.
He begins by singing, "Happy birthday, oh leader," but then the tune changes, and he sings, "Happy birthday, you coward, you failure… Happy birthday, you thief." In the video, a gloved hand smashes a pie into a photo of the president's face.
That birthday message would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago. But recently, Internet-savvy young activists have become increasingly bold about challenging his regime. At the same time, Egypt is facing an economic crisis that some feel may challenge the government more seriously than the fragmented and weak opposition parties do.
In his traditional May Day speech, delivered just three days before his 80th birthday, President Mubarak announced that civil servants will get a 30-percent pay increase to combat the skyrocketing cost of living.
Analysts say it was aimed at defusing a general strike that opposition activists called for May 4, the president's birthday. The main grievances are food prices, which have doubled since January, and stagnant wages that have left average Egyptians struggling to get by.
A similar strike called on April 6 had mixed results, and was followed by two days of clashes between protesters and police in the town of Mahalla that killed at least three people. A crowd stomped on a billboard with President Mubarak's photo, an act unthinkable in Egypt just a few years ago. Hundreds were arrested.
Two weeks later, as Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif spoke to students at Cairo University*, student Bilal Diab stood to publicly heckle him. It was another act that would have been hard to imagine before now, and it was captured on a cellphone camera and posted online.
He shouted, "Egypt's youth are behind bars!" He implored the prime minister to release those who were imprisoned on April 6 for speaking their minds, and then to the sound of rousing applause, he said, "Release Egypt! Release Egypt!"
Some analysts see the events as evidence that ordinary Egyptians are increasingly willing to face up to the security forces and demand change. Others say Egypt has in the past seen similar upsurges in political activism, which have quickly and firmly been silenced, and they suspect this will be no different.
The pay raise for civil servants, combined with a crackdown on anyone associated with the general strikes, may be signs that the government itself is worried.
For most of his 27 years in power, President Mubarak has touted himself as a force for stability and security. Egypt's economy is growing at a healthy seven percent, but a recent crisis over food prices indicates that the boom is not reaching the general population. Roughly 40 percent of Egyptians live on around two dollars a day.
If President Mubarak serves out his current term, he will have been in power longer than Egypt's two previous presidents, Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat, combined.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Mubarak has never named a vice president. But many people believe he is grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him.
Several times in recent years, rumors have spread about the president's health. In August and September, the rumors grew so intense that several local opposition newspapers wrote about them. The state's response was swift and harsh.
A newspaper editor, Ibrahim Eissa, was sentenced to prison for scaring away foreign investment by speculating about the president's health.
The opposition activist who calls himself Ahmad Sherif notes that the case made a direct link between Egypt's business environment and Mr. Mubarak's welfare.
"Hosni Mubarak is apparently someone else's president, in the sense that he is definitely not serving us, his people," Sherif said. 'We see him as a godfather, in charge of stability for good business in Egypt and the region, for a large set of business partners, Egyptians or foreign. We voice finally that the police is not ensuring our security, but the security of his corporation, which you could also call a regime."
Ahmad Sherif is not the activist's real name, it is the online moniker he uses to publish satirical videos and songs harshly critical of the Mubarak family and Egypt's ruling elite. He says he wants to break taboos.
To protect himself from the police, he refuses to meet with journalists in person.
He communicated with a VOA reporter by e-mail and Skype, then recorded his answers to questions and sent them as audio files.
Sherif is one of a new generation of activists using YouTube and the social networking site Facebook to push for change. But he acknowledges that only 10 percent of Egyptians have access to the Internet. So his more recent work has focused on getting his images and ideas out to a wider audience.
He says, "courage is viral," meaning he believes it is contagious.
* corrected 6 May 2008 - The report initially said the heckling event happened at the American University in Cairo.