Official Silence on Mubarak’s Health Adds to Egypt’s Tension


mubarak1Cairo – Egyptian officials maintained a conspicuous silence about former President Hosni Mubarak’s health on Wednesday, a day after the state news agency reported that his condition was so grave that he had to be transferred from the prison where he is serving a life sentence to a military hospital.

Officials said that Mr. Mubarak’s health deteriorated rapidly on Tuesday, and that he went into cardiac arrest and suffered a stroke before his transfer.

After those reports, his lawyers and Egypt’s ruling military generals said Mr. Mubarak was in critical condition, but alive. On Wednesday, security officials said that Mr. Mubarak was alive and breathing on his own. They described his condition as nearly stable.

The former president’s health has been a source of constant speculation and suspicion since his imprisonment. Mr. Mubarak has had health problems for years, but the flood of reports and scares in recent weeks led many Egyptians to believe that the military rulers, determined to move Mr. Mubarak out of a notorious prison, were using those accounts to prepare the public for such a move.

Low ranking security officers, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, speculated that the previous night’s reports that Mr. Mubarak was on the edge of death were part of a scheme to transport him out of Egypt for care. Indeed, many Egyptians on Wednesday wondered if the state news agency reports of his near death were all a morbid hoax.

Security outside the hospital where Mr. Mubarak was said to be staying was light for a facility housing the former head of state. Civilians came and went freely through a side door of the hospital on Wednesday, and two people leaving the grounds said they noticed no change in the hospital’s operations or security.

Mr. Mubarak had been in a prison medical ward since the beginning of the month, when he was given a life sentence in connection with the killings of demonstrators during the 18 days of protests that ended his rule.

The news of his failing health spread quickly through Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the uprising, where tens of thousands of people were protesting the military council governing Egypt. In recent days, the generals had moved to seize the kind of uncontested authority that the former president wielded during his nearly three decades in power.

The confusion over Mr. Mubarak’s health injected new volatility into the country’s growing political and constitutional crisis, even as the two candidates to replace Mr. Mubarak as president both declared themselves the winners of the weekend’s election.

Analysts marveled that Mr. Mubarak had lost consciousness at the climactic moment of the struggle over the future of the system he had defined for so long, and just two days after the vote to choose his successor.

“It is very Shakespearean,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Al Ahram Center, a state-financed research institute. “To himself, he is eternal. There can be nobody after him. He does not want to hear the name of his successor.”

On Monday, Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, said he had won Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, beating Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, with 52 percent of the vote.

The votes were counted publicly at the polling stations, and Egyptian state news media reported the same count as the Brotherhood. Official vote results are expected to be announced this week, but on Tuesday, Mr. Shafik disputed several of the tallies, including those reported in the state news media, that forecast Mr. Morsi as the winner.

A spokesman for Mr. Shafik, Ahmad Sarhan, said without explanation that he had won with 51.5 percent of the vote. But that announcement seemed another tactic in a battle that began before voters went to the polls.

Last week, the generals dissolved Parliament, which was dominated by the Brotherhood, saying the move was justified because of a decision by a court of judges appointed by Mr. Mubarak. The generals also proceeded to issue their own interim constitution, entrenching their power while all but eviscerating the authority of the new president.

The interim constitution also provided the generals and the Mubarak-appointed judiciary with broad sway over the drafting of Egypt’s next permanent constitution.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center monitored the election, said in a statement on Tuesday he was “deeply troubled by the undemocratic turn that Egypt has taken.” The center expressed its “grave concern about the broader political and constitutional context, which calls into question the meaning and purpose of the elections.”

Mr. Carter said that in contrast to the first round of voting last month, some international observers had been subjected to “heightened scrutiny and intimidation from military personnel” during last weekend’s vote.

“There was a small but notable pattern of intimidation of Carter Center witnesses,” Mr. Carter said. The military filmed observers at several polling places, and one international observer felt coerced to make positive statements about the process.

Mr. Carter said he was also concerned about the limitations put on his teams’ ability to monitor the vote and the ballot counting. The “restrictions are contrary to the core principles of credible and effective election observation,” he said in the statement. “The Carter Center will not witness future elections in such circumstances.”

But the Brotherhood was not about to walk away, and it vowed to use the legitimacy of the election to rally the public and fight for power. It called for large street protests until the generals backed down, and on Tuesday tens of thousands of protesters poured into Tahrir Square in response.

As the crowd swelled, a protest leader issued a warning to the military, whose forces had surrounded the Parliament building to prevent elected members from entering.

“We’re giving the forces now standing in front of the Parliament until the official results are announced,” he said, referring to the official election count. “After the official results, if one soldier is standing there – ” he said, his voice drowned out by the crowd.

“The struggle starts now,” said Mohammed Gamal, one of the protesters. “The people’s legitimacy will not be canceled out by the greed of old generals.”

As Mr. Gamal spoke, Mr. Mubarak was being transferred by ambulance to a hospital. Officials and the state news media said that his health had deteriorated rapidly, that he had gone into cardiac arrest and that he needed defibrillation, before suffering the stroke.

Mr. Mubarak was last seen in public 17 days ago when he was sentenced to life. Though the judge had pronounced him responsible for a “dark, dark, dark” era of crimes and said he was broadly responsible for the killings, the verdict was followed by days of street protests. It appeared the judge paved the way for Mr. Mubarak to appeal by saying that prosecutors had shown no evidence linking Mr. Mubarak to the killings.

His questionable conviction, and earlier reports that Mr. Mubarak might be released from the hospital because of his health, became a major issue in the runoff to succeed him.

His health had also declined rapidly after his sentencing, when he was flown by helicopter from the courthouse to a hospital ward in a notorious prison where his government’s political prisoners had served their sentences.

The subject of Mr. Mubarak’s health was a taboo subject, punishable by prison time, when he was president. The flood of reports after his imprisonment led many to speculate that the ruling generals were testing the public reaction in case they decided to move the former president out of prison to the relative comfort of the military hospital.

Mr. Mubarak’s lawyer told CNN on Tuesday that his wife, Suzanne Mubarak, was by his side, and he expressed anger that Egypt’s military rulers had not moved him to the hospital sooner.

It will be their responsibility “if he dies,” the lawyer said.

In Tahrir Square, the news of Mr. Mubarak’s health was met with familiar doubts. “They say Mubarak really died,” said Hatem Moustafa, 22. “Maybe this time it is really true.”

But he was not convinced. “I think the military council is saying this so that we will leave Tahrir Square,” Mr. Moustafa said. “They would say anything to get us to leave the Square.”

Mayy El Sheikh, Dina Salah Amer and Liam Stack contributed reporting.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}