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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.

“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.”