Mubarak's health

Today the New York Times pointed out that Hosni Mubarak turned 82 yesterday, and is still bunkered in Sharm al-Sheikh where he is recovering from his operation and receiving foreign dignitaries.

The president’s continued convalescence far from the capital underscored the frailty not just of the man but of a nation with no clear political plan for who will govern should he die or step down, political scientists here said.

The president has been back to work, meeting with foreign leaders and even giving a national address on Sinai Liberation Day. But he did not give his annual Labor Day speech last week, and has not yet returned to Cairo, where protests rage daily about low wages. He continues to look relatively frail and his health remains the focus of intense speculation.

“The issue is not about his health today,” said Wahid Abdel Meguid, deputy director of the state-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about the ambiguity of the future with regards to the transfer of power, be it in the near or far future. There is increasing anxiety, which used to be prevalent among limited circles of intellectuals and elites, but now it has spread throughout society.”

To address that concern, the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram ran a front page paean to Mr. Mubarak on Tuesday that not only flattered, but also offered an indication of what the public should expect. The headline beneath a picture of Mr. Mubarak said, “The Maker of the Future.”

“We shall not forget to say to him ‘happy birthday’ on this grand day that is dear to our souls,” wrote the newspaper’s chief editor, Osama Saraya. “We say it to him and our hearts flutter with happiness for his recovery after a therapeutic trip after which he returned to arduous work inside and outside to protect Egypt’s ability and place and pivotal role in the interest of all Arab brothers to prevent wars and resume peace for the sake of building nations.”

I think this fairly summarizes the issues at stake — the uncertainty over succession, the expectation that he won't step down soon (or ever) but that we are nearing the end of the Mubarak era, as well as the anxiety of state newspaper editors and others over the coming year or two. Hosni Mubarak, as I've briefly hinted before, is almost certainly seriously ill. It may be complications from the stroke he allegedly suffered from after the death of his grandson, when he disappeared from public view for a month. A recent post by the highly perceptive Zeinobia yesterday, showing partial paralysis of his left hand, would lend credence to the stroke theory. Here are the pics Zeinobia put up:

The lack of movement and position of the left hand is certainly striking.

Since the operation in Germany, however, the rumor mill in Cairo has largely focused on whether Mubarak may have cancer, and that his operation was to remove a tumor. According to the most elaborate and plausible version I've heard, Mubarak does indeed has cancer, but not of the pancreas as many have speculated. It's a nearby area that was affected. He had been treated in Egypt for a while for this, but the German medical team decided it would be best to conduct the operation in Germany, with its own tools. This scenario would give him 12-18 months to live, conveniently close to the deadline for the next presidential elections. If it had been pancreatic cancer, a particularly nasty form of the disease, the prognostic would be six months.

To me, the issue is not so much as to what Mubarak suffers from exactly (the rumors may be wrong, although tellingly some high-level foreign sources agree with the above analysis), but rather that it raises question about who rules Egypt today, as well as who has governed for the last few years of diminishing health. It's known among diplomatic circles in Cairo that Mubarak has been taking fewer meetings, leaning more and more on his chief aide Suleiman Awad as an aide-memoire in the last few years. It's been generally acknowledged that foreign policy, the one area where Mubarak is most active, is today largely in the hands of Omar Suleiman, and most domestic policies in the hands of the cabinet and Gamal Mubarak. The fragmentation of power in recent years is now common wisdom because the recent operation made it obvious; the question raised is how long has this been the case?

There are other factors that suggest that the operation may have precipitated either a conflict within these centers of power, or that the lack of an effective president to be final arbiter is having an effect. In recent months we've seen a backlash on the economic ministers and, implicitly, Gamal Mubarak coming from presidential chief of staff Zakariya Azmi and other regime grandees. We've seen that the Gang of Six, the senior members of the NDP who appear to have key decision-making power, are an important but not necessarily united force. We've heard continuous rumors about Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif being replaced, although that may have been because the last time Mubarak was operated he dismissed Nazif's predecessor, Atef Ebeid, three days after he returned to business (and that signaled a major change in economic policy).

The research firm Stratfor, in one of its largely unsubstantiated missives, recently wrote about the rumors that Nazif will go and that a vice-president will finally be appointed, after 29 years of Mubarak refusing to do so:

Upon his return to Cairo, Mubarak is expected to announce his replacement for the premiership, as well as his choice for vice president. According to the STRATFOR source, Mubarak is selecting from three individuals for the prime minister’s post. The first is Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief and long-rumored successor to Mubarak. The second is Zakaria Azmi, a prominent member of the People’s Assembly and close friend of Mubarak. The third is Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, Egypt’s minister of Civil Aviation and former commander of the Egyptian air force.

It's interesting that Ahmed Shafiq's name is increasingly mentioned, as is Azmi's, and that these elder statesmen of Mubarakism are expected to be one-term presidents before Gamal Mubarak is elected. Maybe Stratfor knows something I don't, but the idea of a puppet strongman being the midwife to Gamal seems ridiculous to me. What possible incentive could he have after he becomes president? 

I don't know who Stratfor's source is, but I doubt it's better informed than a guest at some of Heliopolis' finest tables. But the question of to what extent is succession being planned by Mubarak (never mind Gamal's pretty obvious ambition) and to what extent there is overt competition to replace him is one of the most important in Egypt today. Competition inside the regime is perhaps one of the most dangerous outcomes of the lack of a clear, generally accepted, successor — especially as factions would be tempted to manipulate pockets of the public that are eager for change. Egypt has seen such populist manipulations many times before, and the recent attacks on the "economic reformists" are unusual (after all it's not like their policies weren't endorsed by Mubarak or like anyone opposed them publicly before). Unfortunately, this now appears more likely that any kind of reasonably democratic transition, since there has been very little done to prepare for that. 

So the outlook for Egypt in the next two years isn't great: unless there's a dramatic change like the appointment of a vice-president, Mubarak is likely to run again and stay in power until he dies or, now marginally more likely, step down but only at the last moment possible. In the meantime, tension is growing — not only between the regime and its opponents, but also within the regime itself. Nature abhors a vacuum, and while Egypt does not yet have a vacuum of authority, security, or governance, it does have a vacuum of information.

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