The president looks pale.
No, he’s quite robust.
He appears weak.
No, he’s very strong.
So goes a summer of speculation and chatter over the health of President Hosni Mubarak. The man who has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years dominates the nation’s consciousness like a patriarch in a novel written long ago. There are whispers and asides, but few really know how the president is faring or what is unfolding behind the palace gates.
It is the not knowing that wears on Egyptians, turning every sighting of Mubarak into a national parlor game over how he looks, speaks, walks and smiles. Israeli news reports say he’s dying. Egypt’s state-run newspapers say he’s likely to seek reelection in 2011.
With no vice president or clear successor, these are anxious days along the Nile, and in Washington too.
Worries over Mubarak, a U.S. ally who has battled Islamic extremism and kept the peace with Israel, have risen and ebbed for years. The recent tension began in March when the president traveled to Germany and underwent gallbladder surgery and had a growth removed from his intestine. He did not appear in public for days, and it wasn’t until the Egyptian stock market tumbled and the satirical Internet song “Mubarak Is Dead” surfaced that he was shown on TV speaking to his doctors.
Since then, the president has remained at least fleetingly in the public eye, holding talks from his gold-brocaded chair with world leaders and attending an air force parade. But for many Egyptians the photo-ops are less than convincing as government handlers, rushing about like image consultants and makeup artists, prop up the stately aura of a frail 82-year-old man reportedly angry about the frequent suggestions of his demise.
Concern over the president’s well-being mirrors the country’s unsettling predicament: An era is ending; the future is not defined.
From former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat and through Mubarak’s reign, Egypt has been ruled by strong military men less concerned with human rights and democratic reform than with order and changing the direction of the Middle East.
Mubarak’s police state is omnipresent, poverty and inflation are high, the ruling National Democratic Party is corrupt and uninspiring, but the specter of the president, evoking both derision and admiration, has been a constant in the lives of his countrymen.
“I grew up with Mubarak. His image as our president was undisputed,” said Tamer Sonbati, a dentist who was 3 when Mubarak took power after Sadat’s 1981 assassination. “In the 1990s, we started seeing terrorist attacks and Islamists and other forms of weak but legitimate opposition. We were taught that opposition is sinister, a bad and illegal thing, and that there is only one man capable of fighting them and being our president and this man is Hosni Mubarak.... I thought I would live and die with him as president.”
Consolidation of power has been the president’s hallmark. But it has left a void. Egyptians are confused and a bit neurotic about what lies ahead. Unrest or a peaceful transfer of power?
Talk of possible successors includes: Mubarak’s son Gamal; Omar Suleiman, the country’s septuagenarian intelligence chief; or perhaps a less well- known governor, military or party official. Whoever emerges, at least under the current political math, will need the backing of the ruling party and the army.
Critics say Mubarak is determined to stay in charge. He hasn’t anointed the next president — not publicly, at least — and appears reluctant to elevate those around him. Many had bet that Gamal, 47, a Western-educated top party official, would emerge. He still may, but there is rising skepticism in Egypt about a Mubarak dynasty.
The atmosphere is further complicated by a split in the ruling party between its old political guard and its newer ranks of businessmen and moguls. Hovering around them is a military run by generals who keep their politics close to their medals. The president has stayed above the jockeying within the inner circle, so much so that party officials say it is dishonorable to talk about a new leader while Mubarak occupies the palace.
Few believe that opposition groups, such as the National Front for Change, led by former United Nations nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, and the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as a major threat to the regime. ElBaradei has revived the opposition, but years of oppression have left it divided and cowed. The ruling party also appears weak, though, unsure of how to look beyond the man who has defined it and made many of its members wealthy.
Drive across this land and Mubarak is inescapable, rising on billboards and paintings in villages and cities. A chin of resolve, eyes fixed, he is the young, strong face of Egypt. That was decades ago and those images leave him eerily suspended in time, a leader who has not aged with his countrymen. The problem is that he has grown old, and it is only now that many Egyptians are seeing his wrinkles and frailties and their nation’s slip in regional stature.
There’s a story party officials like to tell: It is 1975. Mubarak, head of the air force, is summoned by President Sadat. On the way over, he wonders what appointment he might receive. He doesn’t dare dream beyond the post of ambassador. Sadat names him vice president and likely successor. The anecdote, embellished over the years, speaks to the Egyptian conviction that it is better for a man to be humble than ambitious.
Many such stories are remembered these days. But old tales don’t new leaders bring.
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.