Mubarak returned to Cairo last night where he plans to give his annual Labour Day speech a few days late. The speech, in which eh is expected to address the rising tide of protest in Egypt and issues such as raising the minimum wage, had been postponed due to his poor health, although government officials claimed it was due to scheduling clashes. He has been hunkering down in Sharm-el-Sheikh, recovering from surgery on his gall bladder a couple of months ago, amidst growing speculation about his life expectancy and its implications for the presidency and his succession. It is unclear when and if he will step down, whether he will contest the upcoming presidential elections, and who will succeed him – most eyes are on his son Gamal or Omar Suleiman, director of the national intelligence agency. Power within the Egyptian state is already fragmented – Mubarak leans on Omar Suleiman, Gamal, and his cabinet, all of whom have control of large areas of policy. Second-guessing the president’s health is a risky endeavour in Egypt – the regime is so keen to maintain Mubarak’s all-powerful image that in 2007 they successfully convicted Ibrahim Eissa, a newspaper editor, of causing a ‘loss of foreign investment’ by reporting that he was ill. State rag Al-Ahraam ran a front page article on Mubarak’s birthday praising him to the skies: ‘We shall not forget to say to him ‘happy birthday’ on this grand day that is dear to our souls…We say it to him and our hearts flutter with happiness for his recovery….’. The Egyptian government is desperate to keep a hold on public perception, but this has not stopped questions being raised. The ever-excellent blog Egyptian Chronicles has been following his health closely, keeping an eye on his mysteriously paralysed left arm, and other commentators are picking up on it as well.
There is no clear plan for a post-Mubarak Egypt, even within the NDP: ‘It’s now months before elections and we still don’t know who we’re going to nominate for this upcoming race,’ said one NDP member. Add this to the challenges from ElBaradei and others, and the groundswell of protest in Cairo and other towns, and one man’s health becomes a matter of importance for an entire nation. Both AlJazeera and the NYT quote ‘Cairo taxi drivers’ (ha) on how much they love Mubarak and fear change, but the voices for change in Egypt are growing stronger, and the man with the dodgy hand is going to have to come up with a plan. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this will be any kind of democratic transition. Here’s the Arabist: ‘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.’