Is Mubarak Dead or Alive?

CAIRO – For the second time in less than a week, rumors are circulating tonight that former president Hosni Mubarak has died in the south Cairo prison where he is serving a life sentence for killing protesters during last year’s January 25 uprising.

Within one hour, Reuters reported that Mubarak’s doctors declared him clinically dead and then that security sources denied that claim and indicated that he was merely unconscious and connected to a respirator. (One might wonder if that’s so much different than the ill 84 year-old’s health condition for the past several years.)

Though he will be the first of Egypt’s modern presidents to die out of office, Mubarak’s deteriorating health condition has become a seemingly endless saga — as befits this country’s most recent pharaoh. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s funeral in 1970 was reportedly one of the largest ones in history such that when grieving crowds of supporters thronged the procession in Cairo, Nasser’s body had to be airlifted from the scene to protect its integrity. Eleven years later, Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists on live television during a military parade celebrating Egypt’s victory in the 1973 October War.

How Mubarak’s death and funeral will turn out is unclear, but it is not surprising that it is happening at the most critical moment in the country’s revolutionary period. The continued secrecy surrounding his health and the special treatment and medical attention he has received in prison are among the strongest testaments to the Egyptian revolution’s failure to uproot the culture of corruption that Mubarak institutionalized over the past three decades.

Much will be written about Mubarak while he maintains his current near-death state as well as in the days after his merciful end. Even as Egypt suffers through a critical transition period, the former iron-fisted ruler is likely to overshadow from the grave his former fiefdom’s attempt to move towards a legitimate democracy.

Mubarak was not always so arrogant and domineering. During the first few years of his presidency, he used to tell of his nomination by Sadat to the post of vice president. As the story goes, Mubarak visited Sadat at a military installation near the Suez Canal during the October War. Having made a name for himself in this conflict, he expected that Sadat was going to ask him about his desired promotion after the fighting ended. Mubarak consulted his wife before the meeting, and they agreed that they would be happy with an ambassadorial post, but in a quiet Scandinavian country rather than a busy Western European capital.

In the meeting, Sadat objects to Mubarak’s modest ambitions and promises him something much bigger. The ever loyal soldier, Mubarak agrees to accept whatever the president chooses for him. In the car back to Cairo, he falls asleep and is awakened by his driver who wishes him congratulations. Confused, Mubarak waits to listen to the next news report on the radio and is startled to hear his name mentioned as Sadat’s choice for his vice president. That experience ingrained in him the sense that he had not sought high office but rather that it had been thrust upon him and he had acquiesced to his patriotic duty.

Mubarak reportedly entered his current critical health condition almost immediately upon arrival at Tora prison on June 2 after his conviction in the case of killing protesters in Tahrir Square. Many Egyptians were disappointed that he was not sentenced to death, but it seems now that his people’s rejection and scorn were more lethal than any executioner’s instruments. In his analysis, perhaps Mubarak, the simple peasant from the Delta called to fulfill a national duty, might reasonably claim that he is dying of a broken heart sustained in the January 25 revolution and the subsequent events.