When the Rumors Are No Longer Exaggerated

Is Hosni Mubarak dying? Ill? The panic in Egypt surrounding the health of the president, in power for 29 years, is less about the fact that he will die at some point and more about his legacy and his successor - most likely his son Gamal.

"President Mubarak is suffering from a serious illness. Defective blood circulation is making him lose consciousness for long seconds and sometimes minutes ... Global intelligence services know his medical condition is deteriorating and they are keeping abreast of the medical treatment that he is receiving; only Egyptian citizens are not allowed to know about it."

This was not a report published this week - it appeared in 2007. Already then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was "about to die." And in 2003, when he collapsed during a speech in parliament, he was rumored to have actually died. Security people locked the MPs in the plenum and did not allow anyone to leave until Mubarak's doctor "brought him back to life."

When Ibrahim Issa, editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustour, published the item three years ago about Mubarak's illness, he was sentenced to six months in jail, of which he served only two months on appeal. Issa was charged with printing information that harmed not only the president, but Egypt's economic security as well. The prosecutor ruled that the report had caused a drop in the stock market and a loss of investment to the tune of about 350 million Egyptian liras ($350 million ).

Now the guesses range from cancer of the liver, the pancreas or the lungs, to clinical depression, problems with blood circulation and diabetes. But as one source was quoted as saying in The Washington Times this week: "We know he is dying, but we don't know when he will die. You can be dying for a long time, by the way. Look at [former Cuban President Fidel] Castro." Official spokesmen, as usual, are denying this, and for his part Mubarak is making sure to keep up an active daily schedule, meeting with world leaders, speaking at the graduation of a pilots course and issuing new instructions about taxes.

Mubarak, who in May celebrated his 82nd birthday, is not healthy, and one day, in spite of the fact that "the president is God, and gods are never ill," as Issa wrote, we can assume that he will indeed pass away. The panic in Cairo is not about a natural phenomenon, the death of a leader, but about his successor - or, more to the point, about his legacy.

Rightly so. After a term of 29 years, the longest in Egypt's history after Mohammed Ali in the 19th century, Mubarak's ostensible immortality has become so self-evident that anything else that transpires is of necessity a revolution. And revolution is always bad news for anyone accustomed to working with one leader, rather than a government that comes and goes, as in most countries.

Since the officers' coup in Egypt in 1952, there has been no revolution there. Anwar Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970; 11 years later, Sadat was assassinated and bequeathed his post to Mubarak. In general, there have been no military coups in the Middle East for about 30 years, with the exception of that which toppled Iraqi president Saddam Hussein - but that was an American "coup."

Presidential elections in Egypt are slated for September 2011. When Mubarak was asked a few weeks ago who will be his successor, he replied: "Only Allah knows." In other words, he has not yet quit the race, even if he has not specifically announced that he plans to run. On another occasion he said he intends to serve his country until his dying day. He thus seems to be ignoring his wife Suzanne, who has long been begging him to leave the presidency and rest.

For over five years Mubarak has been preparing Gamal, 47, the younger of his two sons, to become the next president. He promoted him to the position of general secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy committee, took him on trips abroad, introduced him to the U.S. president, "advised" him about which politicians and businessmen he should seek out to bolster his status. Meanwhile, Gamal Mubarak is receiving government support for the economic programs he is initiating, which are mainly examples of "humane privatization" - in other words, plans that will not harm workers too much. He initiated a program for 1,000 of Egypt's poor villages that also includes a family-planning project, and is responsible for recruiting foreign investors.

Two thorny issues

The younger Mubarak has thus far avoided two areas: relations between Egypt and the Arab countries, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regarding Israel he said in an interview with the Middle East Quarterly last winter: "No doubt Sadat made the right decision [in signing the peace treaty with Israel]. He was right not to yield to the pressure from other Arab countries, which during the 1980s, were not even willing to talk about peace ... If you go to Cairo today and meet with some pundits, you will hear some hefty words on the relations between Egypt and Israel. But it is true that what really matters is neither what you hear at the cafes, nor what you read in the newspapers: It is the Egyptian government policies. And I am still convinced that, if we keep on explaining to Egyptians all the benefits they got from the peace and all that they could have lost if Egypt were still at war, none would be ready to renounce this opportunity."

Regarding the issues of Gaza, Israeli withdrawal from the territories, reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, or Egyptian relations with Syria or Turkey, it is hard to find a public statement made by Gamal Mubarak. In any event, today he has no real rivals who can affect his chances of being elected. Amendments to the constitution introduced by his father in 2007 have made it impossible for anyone to run for president who has not been an active member of the ruling party's leadership for at least five years. An independent candidate is a possibility, but he would have to receive the support of 250 elected public officials, 65 of them members of the bicameral parliament. Although the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds 88 seats in the lower house, could give such a candidate its backing, the candidate would still need another 162 supporters from the local councils and the Shura Council, the upper house, in which neither the Brotherhood nor any other opposition party has enough members to give the candidate the requisite assistance.

A first test of the country's political opposition is likely to come as soon as October, in the parliamentary elections - but don't hold your breath. Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the opposition parties have formulated a position either about possible joint activities or about presidential star candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who enjoys a good reputation but not much popularity. In effect, if the opposition does not succeed in convincing parliament to alter the articles of the constitution dealing with presidential elections - and if the president does not approve such legislation - Gamal Mubarak's path to the presidency is guaranteed legally.

But any Egyptian president, whether Gamal Mubarak or Mohamed ElBaradei, Omar Suleiman or Amr Moussa - all names that have been mooted - will have to deal with the legacy of Hosni Mubarak. Today's Egypt is entirely different from the country he inherited in 1981: The population has doubled; its literacy rate has increased to about 72 percent; the Internet and the cell phone have created new forums for public discourse that bypass the censor; the media are far more open; and there are hundreds of street demonstrations with thousands of participants. Furthermore, new opposition movements such as Kafiya and its subsidiaries, alongside a new generation of the Muslim Brotherhood, will insist that any new president, especially if he comes into power with their support, establish a different relationship between the government and the public. This will also be the first time that an Egyptian president (unless it is Suleiman ) comes in with a civic-economic record, rather than a military one.

In the West and in Israel, people are of course less interested in how the new president will deal with Egypt's failing education system, the ruined infrastructure, the millions of unemployed or water pollution. For them, the worrisome questions are: Will a new Egyptian president know how to handle Gaza? Will Egypt lose its hegemony to Syria? Will Saudi Arabia become a major player as well? In short, will Mubarak's Egypt continue to exist?

Nobody asks such a question about a truly democratic country, where it is obvious that elections change the government, its ideology and policy. Less democratic countries must always prove that the same sort of leadership will prevail; otherwise they will be considered dangerous.