The Egyptian government is denying reports that President Hosni Mubarak's health is failing, pointing to his recent hosting of several regional leaders. But brief, televised appearances have done little to quell rumors that the 82-year-old president is sicker than the government says. The president's health and other events, including the death of a young man allegedly at the hands of police, have many Egyptians on edge.
A government spokesman this week tried to downplay a report in the Washington Times newspaper that Western intelligence agencies are tracking Mr. Mubarak's decline since surgery in Germany earlier this year. The government says the president is recovering from gall bladder disease, but the Times report, along with independent media reports in Egypt, suggest his illness is more grave.
"The health of the president is deteriorating," said Hassan Nafae, a political science professor at Cairo University. "There is no transparency. We do not know exactly, as the Egyptian people, we do not know about the health of the president, as if it is a top secret."
The lack of clarity takes on urgency as Mr. Mubarak, after nearly 30 years in power, has no designated successor. Added to that are presidential elections, set for next year, for which no one has declared their candidacy, leaving a robust rumor mill to fill the void.
As for the official statements that do come out, there is a general sense of mistrust. This skepticism was reinforced recently by the initial, confounding explanation of the death of Khaled Said. Authorities claimed the 28-year-old Alexandria businessman choked on a packet of marijuana during a routine search of an Internet cafe. Witnesses said Said was brutally beaten to death by undercover police - accounts that seem to be supported by photographs of the deceased. Only after weeks of protests and condemnation by international human rights groups did the government reconsider its initial version and announce that policemen will face trial.
Egyptian democracy activist Ahmed Salah says Said's case is not an exception. "Anyone visiting a police station may see a policeman beating somebody," he said. "The difference between the case of Khaled Said and the other cases is, it was very brutal, it led to death and it was totally public. It did not happen in closed rooms, behind closed doors where even the other inmates are blindfolded, as it happens usually. There were scores of eyewitnesses."
"Despair and fear"
Egyptians have long feared the often-unchecked powers wielded by police. But Salah says Said's case serves as a potent reminder of the arbitrary nature of their own fate, while Mr. Mubarak's health leaves them uncertain about the fate of their government.
"The combination of this despair and fear has two phases," he said. "One is total surrender, because there is no hope: 'There is nothing that I can do.' And the other one, which is what we all fear of, could be the explosion, when there is nothing any longer to lose. So everybody could just go like crazy. And what we can see now is healthy venting, let's say, attempts organized by many activists in order to try to get the people to vent off anguish, channel their anger and fear in the right way."
What Salah calls healthy venting can be seen in protests of low wages and unemployment. But those rallies, as well as others prompted by Said's death, and the recent extension of the nation's emergency laws, have been relatively small, often no more than several hundred people in this, the Arab world's most populace nation.
"The history of Egypt is a history of a central government, strong institutions that do not allow any room for mass movement, mass revolution, mass demonstrations that we have seen in other countries - in East Europe or other places," said Said Sadek, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. "So most likely what you will get is a continuation of the same regime with different faces; the military and the intelligence complex will continue to exert the same pressure."
Short of expectations
Mr. Mubarak's government made a move toward greater democratic participation in the last presidential vote in 2005. But international observers say the introduction of multi-party elections fell far short of expectations and have noted no real progress in the intervening years. One of the strongest opposition forces, the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, has been marginalized politically. A more likely contender appears to be the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, but powerful behind-the-scene forces, including intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and lawmaker and government insider Safwat el-Sherif, are also expected to play a role.
Cairo University's Hassan Nafae says no matter who runs, the issue of continuity and security will likely dominate. "I think you might have different centers of power in Egypt," he said. "I think Gamal Mubarak is playing a crucial role, but also Omar Suleiman on one hand, and Safwat el-Sherif on the other hand. The military is watching. But you cannot say this is going on according to a political vision or a political harmony."
One potential political alternative, former U.N. nuclear chief, Mohammad ElBaradei, raised hopes earlier this year when he expressed an interest in running for president. But his extended visits to Europe, and conditions he has placed on his possible candidacy have caused the initial exuberance to fizzle. All the same, Said Sadek says, it is too early to rule out ElBaradei, provided he gets the backing of security forces.
"The real reins of power would remain in the military and police institutions," he said. "You have to remember that the Middle East is a very volatile area and so the ruling elite in Egypt would always look for a strong army officer or policeman or general who would be managing the country in a very turbulent area."
Which is why, says Sadek and others, the transition to truly civilian rule may be a long time coming.