I have been largely offline recently because of recent travels, as we settle into Morocco for the summer. While the Arab Far West provides a much gentler climate than Cairo, as every summer I worry that Hosni Mubarak will take advantage of my absence to step down, kick the bucket or somesuch. Having spent the past 10 years of my life waiting for that moment, I don't want to miss out (a rather sad realization, I know.)
The recent rumors about Mubarak's ill-health — that his recent trip to Paris was for a check-up (Mubarak used to get discreetly treated by La Republique Française at the military hospital at Saint-Cyr), or that he might imminently visit his German doctors (who have been quietly visiting him in Cairo and Sharm al-Sheikh for months) — are practically unverifiable, of course. Rather than speculate on their authenticity, we might reflect on the fact that Egyptian authorities thought it fit to deny them. Which, of course, can only heighten the speculation in Arab countries, where regimes usually only issue false information and denials are interpreted as early confirmations (there is a fascinating treatise to be written about information flows and interpretation in dictatorships.)
Or that this will pretty be par for the course in the months and years ahead. Assuming, as I am, that Mubarak is seriously ill but has some time left (or indeed may recover) he will be constantly subjected to this kind of rumor-mongering. Canceling a meeting with Netanyahu? Must be rushing off to Germany. Visiting Europe? Must be to visit a nearby clinic. Attending a military parade? It all smacks of trying too hard. These are facile conclusions that hide a nearly total information vacuum. Yes, you can look at the picture above and conclude that Hosni Mubarak is not feeling too well. But does it tell you, as one diplomat told the World Tribune, that he is a living corpse?
In July, the sources said, Mubarak underwent a lengthy examination at a French military hospital outside Paris. They said the examination took place amid alarm by presidential aides and close relatives over the decline of Mubarak in 2010.
"Everybody around him is trying to give the impression that he's a spring chicken," another diplomatic source said. "The truth is he is heavily drugged, particularly before he appears with visitors or in public."
On July 14, Mubarak, in a one-day delay of initial plans, was scheduled to meet visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Egypt. This was set to be the fifth meeting between the two leaders over the last year.
The sources said the United States has been concerned over Mubarak's decline and the prospect of political chaos in Egypt. They said the administration of President Barack Obama has urged Mubarak to advance elections, scheduled for late 2011, to prevent a power vacuum.
Color me skeptical, but I somehow doubt that Obama is telling Mubarak to change Egypt's electoral schedule. The idea that there is an impending power vacuum is part of parcel of the Mubarak regime's strategy of zero-visibility about Egypt's future: this way there is no opportunity given to adventurists in the regime or the opposition to mount an offense, or external powers to intervene. The fog around Egypt's future suits Mubarak and key regime figures just fine, indeed one would think it's pretty clear that even if Mubarak is no longer running the country the way he used to, having him as a figurehead is the most desirable outcome.
For years now I have bored people by talking about the Bourguibazation of Egypt: that Mubarak will be on his death bed, with succession plotted around him, the country's leadership increasingly fractured (as under Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, who was retired in a "medical coup" by his Interior Minister, Zein Abdeen Ben Ali, still ruling today — partly because Ben Ali was having an affair with Bourguiba's niece and caretaker). I think we've seen some signs of this already, but Egypt is institutionally stronger than Tunisia was, and slower-moving. Bourguibazation might lead to BenAlization (the joke works better in French, because it sounds like penalisation), or might not. Mubarak may be very sick, or he may just be suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy treatment, or may simply be 82 years old.
So when I sit in Morocco, see alarming headlines and have ghoulish thoughts about getting a standby plane ticket back to Cairo should there be any "action" (as we journos charmingly say), I take a step back and pause: what hard facts, prolonged disappearance, change of the mood in situ or other sign do I have to go by? The Mubarak regime is in its dying years, and these rumors will come up increasingly often. With what I assume is among the best medical care money can buy, he can live a long time even in a bad shape.
Update: I just came across this funny editorial in Lebanon's al-Akhbar that starts off with the joke that a lawyer has filed a suit against the government for hiding that Mubarak has been dead since 2004 and that a body double working for Suzanne and Gamal Mubarak has been playing him since:
يقول الخبر إنّ محامياً مصرياً رفع دعوى قضائية على وزير العدل ممدوح مرعي، متّهماً إيّاه بتضليل الشعب المصري وإخفاء الحقيقة عنه. أما الحقيقة التي يخفيها وزير العدل ومن معه، بحسب الدعوى، فهي: موت الرئيس حسني مبارك منذ عام 2004. ويتابع نص الدعوى قائلاً إن السيدة سوزان مبارك ونجليه علاء وجمال مبارك استخدموا بديلاً للرئيس ليظهر في المناسبات العامة، فيما يحكم مصر الآن قرينة الرئيس ونجلاه من وراء الستار.
الخبر لا يدعو إلى السخرية. فهو يكاد يختزل المشهد العربي. لقد بلغ الاهتراء حداً بات الديكتاتور نفسه، وسلامته الفردية، غير ذات معنى. لم يعد مصير البلاد مرهوناً بشخص. بات مرهوناً بصورة.