Thu, Mar 25, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Questions linger over health of Egyptian president

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CAIRO

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s health continues to improve after surgery 17 days ago to remove his gallbladder, easing anxiety in his nation where uncertainty fueled rumors that he was seriously ill, or even dead.

For the moment, many Egyptians appear to have returned to their default position — that little or nothing will change in the priorities or administration of the state and that Mubarak will keep power for years to come.

But while the mood has calmed since Mubarak appeared on TV and in photographs, his illness and public absence underscored the extent of confusion over Egypt’s future. There are laws intended to guide the transition of power, but there is also a broad understanding that the decision will be made by those who wield power even before voters cast a ballot.

That has led to anxiety because only the president knows exactly what each of the most powerful institutions — the military, the security services and the governing National Democratic Party — is thinking or planning, political experts said.

In normal circumstances, the security and military forces prefer to operate in the background, ceding the appearance of authority to the civil institutions. But on the issue of the presidency, they are likely to push for a decisive say.

Mubarak will be 82 in May. His term expires next year, and no one is sure if he plans to serve another five years, allow another candidate to represent the National Democratic Party or step down.

All of those questions became amplified in importance on March 6, when the government announced that Mubarak had his gallbladder removed in Germany. In a follow-up statement, the government announced that surgeons had also removed a small growth, but that it was benign.

About a week after the surgery, a rumor spread rapidly that the president was dead. This was quickly denied by the government but the damage had been done. The stock market dropped and cynicism grew over government reports that the president was improving.

Mubarak’s absence became a focus of political satire, often with a mocking tone, like the Mubarak is Dead song that circulated on the Internet.

On March 16 Egyptians saw a short, silent video of their president in a bathrobe chatting with his doctors. He looked thin and tired, but very much alive.

That helped restore investor confidence, and the stock market began to recover.

The state has followed up with daily updates, a recording of the president’s voice, pictures of the president working and presidential decrees issued from the hospital. All of that has helped restore calm. It has not, however, answered any of the long-term questions facing Egyptians.

“The question has not changed: ‘What happens after Mubarak?’” said Ghada Shahbandar, a human rights advocate. “We have a president who is in his 80s and has undergone surgery, so of course people are curious. They want to know what’s going on. And no one is immortal. That is a fact.”

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