CAIRO, Egypt — Stocks in Egypt tumbled when anxiety-ridden investors heard the news. President Hosni Mubarak had checked into a hospital in Germany for a minor surgery, but on the streets of Cairo, there was speculation he was seriously ill, maybe even dead.
It wasn’t Mubarak’s first health scare, but with no successor named for their aging president, Egyptians begged the question: Who will take over if he dies?
To dispel the rumors, the president scheduled an appearance on Egyptian state television. And so, from his hospital room, a coherent, but pale Mubarak finally spoke as the video camera rolled: “I do thank my fellow citizens who care for my health. ...” said Mubarak. “After finishing treatment, I will be back home to assume my responsibilities, God willing.”
That was in 2004, during a two-week stay in Munich to treat a slipped disk.
Now, the 81-year-old — Egypt's longest serving leader, having assumed the presidency of the Arab world's most-populous country in 1981 — is recovering in a different German hospital after surgery on his gallbladder nearly three weeks ago.
Much of Mubarak’s health history has repeated itself; pervasive rumors, a temporary dip in the stock market, and a brief video appearance from the hospital. And again, the now decades-old question on Egyptian presidential succession has resurfaced, though this time — with Mubarak’s older age and even longer absence from Cairo — the call for answers is growing much louder.
“Five years ago, it was mainly the elite and members of the opposition asking about succession,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded research institute. “But now the same questions are being asked by all Egyptians.”
In Cairo’s bustling bazaars, smoke-filled coffee shops, and increasingly on the internet, Egyptians are busy speculating on a future without Mubarak.
Like in most authoritarian regimes, where secrecy trumps transparency, speaking openly about the health of the president has long been considered taboo in Egypt. Just two years ago, one of Egypt’s most well-known newspaper editors was jailed for writing about the health of Mubarak.
But since the operation earlier this month, a more cooperative government has facilitated public debate, said Adel Hammouda, editor-in-chief of the independent Al-Fagr newspaper. “The government wants to be more transparent, probably because they are afraid of people starting rumors on Facebook and other social media,” he said.
This month, the government released several statements in coordination with the hospital in Germany. And last week, video footage ran on state television showing a frail, yet lucid Mubarak chatting with doctors.
Somewhat mysteriously however, the short video aired without audio, which did little to quell the already rampant rumors of Mubarak’s injury, death, and even mummification.
A mocking commentary published earlier this week in Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent daily newspaper, announced to President Mubarak that millions of Egyptians were happy he was healthy and recovering, but they were equally panicked for the future.
Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, sees no cause for immediate concern, as long as Mubarak is in complete control of the decision-making process from his hospital in Germany.
“A prolonged absence of Mubarak could affect the state security apparatus, because he’s firmly in charge. But it worries me if he’s not,” said Kazziha. “I can’t think of anyone else in the present circumstances who could manage that sector.”
Hosni Mubarak has ruled this country, historically and geographically a regional power, for nearly 30 years. Egypt is the most populous Arab nation and one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, in part because of its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Mubarak’s reign at the top has lasted because of an unwillingness to share power. Mubarak’s tight grip of the political scene in Egypt, whether through election laws that prohibit other viable candidates or through the long arm of his state security forces, suppresses most would-be challengers before they can ever start.
As he did in 2004, Mubarak ceded temporary presidential powers to his prime minister before undergoing the recent operation.
Still, many in Egypt had hoped that Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) would have also nominated a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt, scheduled for September 2011.
“The NDP have to assume their responsibility as the majority party to inform Egyptians about the future of the president of the republic,” said Rashwan.
Members of the NDP seem less concerned. Mustafa Elwi Saif, a member of the upper house of parliament, is certain the president will run again, despite his age and health.
“If he does decide to run, I think the question of succession would not be appropriate to pose,” said Saif. “With the expertise and experience that Mubarak has accumulated, ‘who comes next?’ is not a critical political question.”
"Who comes next?" would be more irrelevant if Egypt had a vice president, the traditional path to power in Egypt.
In 1970, Gamal Abdel Nasser's death from a heart attack elevated Anwar Sadat to the country’s highest post. The same happened to then-Vice President Mubarak in 1981 after Sadat’s assassination.
But Mubarak has never named a deputy.
Most Egyptians now think the president is grooming his youngest son Gamal for the job.
Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that Mubarak does indeed have well-planned designs for Gamal, but has not made them public because he understands that Egyptians would not easily accept the type of nepotistic transfer of power so common in the Middle East.
"Mubarak realizes that it’s simply not acceptable, it's going too far to just name his son as the vice president. It has to be done in a way that appears to be legitimate, and appears to reflect the will of the Egyptian people expressed through an election," said Dunne. "Everything needs to be engineered so that it does not appear that President Mubarak forced Gamal on the Egyptian people."
The homecoming last month of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, may complicate matters for a Mubarak dynasty.
Calling for comprehensive constitutional reform, ElBaradei immediately galvanized Egypt’s fractured opposition, leaving many hoping he would run for president in 2011.
Still, most Egyptians recognize that the electoral rules set by Mubarak and the ruling NDP will limit ElBaradei’s chances of running a successful campaign.
Everyone here has an opinion on who will succeed Mubarak, but without firm answers to the perennial question, Egyptians are left only to speculate on their future.
“Mubarak remains the only character in the country on whom there is a consensus,” said Walid. “His absence is undermining that consensus, and only leaves the door open to rumors and interpretations.”