Mubarak health drama adds to Egypt uncertainty
Hosni Mubarak's move out of jail to a Cairo military hospital where officials say he is slipping in and out of a coma has created fresh uncertainty for Egyptians as their wait for results of a presidential election dragged on.
Exactly what ails the 84-year-old, who ruled for 30 years till last year, is unclear but two security sources and one of his defence lawyers described his condition as "almost stable" or "on the way to stability" in an intensive care suite, with doctors occasionally using a ventilator to help him breathe.
Though now a convict serving a life sentence, Mubarak was being treated in one of Egypt's best-equipped facilities in a leafy suburb by the Nile. It has prompted some Egyptians to suspect a ruse, connived at by the brother officers who have replaced him, to get their fallen leader out from behind bars.
Mubarak's health has been a subject of intense speculation since he was jailed for life on June 2, casting his shadow over the political transition and reminding the nation that, 16 months after his fall, few questions have been answered about where Egypt is heading and whether democracy will take root.
Having held a first free presidential vote at the weekend, the election committee said it could still not say who won and that it might miss a target of Thursday (tonight, NZ time) to announce results - prompting disquiet in a nation long used to rigged ballots.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the former president's long-time adversary, declared victory for their candidate Mohamed Morsi after a presidential run-off vote on Saturday and Sunday. Rival Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief like Mubarak and his last prime minister, has challenged the claim and says he is ahead.
The election committee said it was reviewing complaints.
But whoever is declared winner the next president's powers have already been curbed in a last-minute decree issued by the army after it ordered the Islamist-led parliament dissolved.
Reflecting the multiple levels of uncertainty, newspaper headlines pondering the outcome of the presidential vote vied with those reporting the unclear status of the former president's health after his evening transfer from the medical unit of Cairo's Tora prison to the Maadi military hospital.
"Mubarak in a coma between life and death," wrote Al-Akhbar newspaper, below a headline on the row between Morsi and Shafiq over who won: "Future president in the realm of the unknown."
Brotherhood supporters and others staged a protest on Tuesday against the army's decree to limit the president's role and retain powers. Brotherhood official Osama Yassin said on Wednesday he was calling on supporters to set up open-ended protests in squares across the nation to make their demands.
"We reject the overturning of popular will," he said.
But Saad al-Katatni, speaker of the short-lived democratic parliament dissolved by the ruling military council last week, said the Brotherhood would not fight back with violence in the way Algerian Islamists did after the army there cancelled a vote they had won in 1992, touching off a decade of civil war.
"We are fighting a legal struggle via the establishment and a popular struggle in the streets," Katatni said. "This is the ceiling. I see the continuation of the struggle in this way," he told Reuters in the first interview since the dissolution.
Should Shafiq be declared the winner, the Brotherhood said, they would "take to the streets to defend ourselves".
Prolonged anxiety has wearied many Egyptians who were elated when Mubarak fell. It has also taken a toll on the economy. This week, share prices have lost nearly 8 per cent while the pound touched a seven-year low against the dollar on Wednesday.
One of Mubarak's defence lawyers, Mohamed Abdel Razek, described former president "almost stable" blaming his lack of proper treatment at the prison for his condition.
"The president still goes in and out of comas and had a stroke and all of this requires a hospital with special medical equipment that would be able to treat his condition," he said.
That description was broadly echoed by two security sources.
A few dozen people gathered overnight outside the whitewashed hospital building set in pleasant gardens. The shah of Iran, ousted in the 1979 Islamic revolution, spent his last days and died there. Anwar Sadat, whose 1981 assassination by Islamists propelled Mubarak, his vice president, into power, was taken to the same hospital, but declared dead on arrival.
Some of those congregating outside were curious bystanders who heard a famous patient was inside, others were there to show support. One held a poster of Mubarak, resplendent in ceremonial uniform, with the caption: "History will be the judge."
"Mubarak has been dead since his people sentenced him to prison and threw him in Tora. His people wronged him and did not give him his rights," said Loola Yamany, 50. She was one of a handful of people there on Wednesday morning.
Many Egyptians have been dubious of the fuss over Mubarak's health. Some protested that he was not sentenced to death. Many suspect his fellow generals, who pushed him aside to appease the protesters, of arranging a more agreeable confinement for him, in conditions beyond the dreams of most of his fellow citizens.
During his 10-month trial, he appeared on a hospital stretcher, routinely flown in by helicopter from another plush military hospital, on Cairo's desert outskirts. Though his state of health at that time was unclear, one medical source said he had been free to stroll in the grounds or take a swim.
Mubarak's legal team had been pressing to have him moved from the prison hospital to a better-equipped facility, saying he was not receiving adequate treatment for his condition. However, prison authorities previously refused to let him go.
For most Egyptians, the identity of their next president was a more pressing concern than the fate of their last.
"The news about Mubarak's health is all speculation. We should depend on reality. We can't keep following rumours," said Maher Eid Hemdan, a 59-year-old pensioner, in central Cairo.
"As for the elections, may the best man win."
There has been no clear statement from independent medical experts on what ails Mubarak, though state media have reported a variety of illnesses from shortage of breath to heart attacks.
A state news agency report on Tuesday that he was "clinically dead", a condition normally defined by the lack of heartbeat and breathing and one from which patients can be revived, was followed by swift denials from military sources.
It was unclear whether at any point he reached that stage, though some sources did say he was dependent on life support.
Noting that, without heart, lung or even brain function, machines can keep the body alive, Peter Openshaw, a consultant in respiratory medicine at St Mary's Hospital in London, said: "If they wished to keep him alive, with modern techniques and a good hospital, you could technically say that he is alive if you had him on completely artificial heart and lung support.
"Under conditions where doctors are doing absolutely everything they can to keep you going, it's actually quite hard to die."