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Demise of a modern-day pharaoh

Why rumors of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's illness, death and even mummification are running rampant.

A video grab released on March 16, 2010, shows Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (C) sitting and chatting to doctors at a hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. Mubarak, 81, who has ruled Egypt for almost three decades, had surgery on March 6 and the treatment has caused rumours about the seriousness of his condition, weighing on Egyptian market share prices in recent days. (Reuters)

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.