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Backgrounder: Egypt president health rumours raise fears over country’s future

BBC Monitoring

Backgrounder by Muhammad Shukri of BBC Monitoring on 13 September


Rumours that Egyptian President Husni Mubarak is in poor health have spread in Egypt recently. Mubarak, now aged 79, has ruled Egypt since 1981, following the assassination of his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat.

The Egyptian authorities have denied the rumours regarding his health and have accused the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group of being behind them. The MB is a multinational Sunni Islamist movement and the main political opposition organization in Egypt.

The pro-government press have echoed the accusations. Newspapers went so far as to accuse the USA of paving the way for the MB to spread the health rumours. Meanwhile, both independent and opposition press outlets blamed the quick spread of the rumours on the government for its lack of transparency towards its citizens.

Hearing of the rumours, Israel voiced fears about the political future of Egypt in the event of Mubarak disappearing from the political scene.

The rumours about the president's health started in Alexandria where President Mubarak was spending the summer holiday at his rest house. Soon the rumours had spread all over Egypt.

Extraordinary security measures were put in place around the presidential rest house as well as for the landing and take-off of aircraft, the independent online newspaper Al-Misriyun reported on 29 August. According to the newspaper, rumours had it that a medical team had been brought in by helicopter as the president's condition took a turn for the worse.

Meanwhile, President Mubarak made a quick unscheduled visit to the nearby Smart Village and the Industrial Zone in Burj al-Arab. Egyptian TV broadcast the president's visit, showing him inspecting a number of projects in the zone.

The president's tour was intended to quell the rumours circulating over the previous two days on the deterioration of his health condition, his travel for treatment in France, or his admi! ssion to Dar al-Fu'ad Hospital or a military hospital, a diplomatic source told the independent daily Al-Misri al-Yawm on 30 August.

Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas accused

Relations between the government and the MB have been tense recently. The security authorities have made a series of arrests of the group's leaders, and the ongoing military trial of other MB prominent figures, including the second deputy general guide of the group, Khayrat al-Shatir, has exacerbated the situation.

"I do not care about rumours. I do my job and I pay no attention to rumours. We know their source and what they are aimed at," President Mubarak said in an interview with the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper on 30 August, in an indirect reference to the MB.

In a direct accusation, an official political source told Al-Misri al-Yawm on 2 September that the MB and the Palestinian Hamas group, along with some Arab media outlets, had been responsible for circulating the health rumours.

Pro-government press accuse USA, Muslim Brotherhood

A pro-government newspaper accused the USA of giving the MB the chance to spread the rumours. On 2 September, Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, chief editor of the daily Al-Jumhuriyah, referred to a statement allegedly given by US Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone to US reporters in early August in which he said that he had felt during his latest meeting with Mubarak that "the president was not in good health".

"I saw the statement by the US ambassador about the president's health as another means of pressure, practised by Washington every now and then. This is because the Americans know that Cairo does not chime in with their policies in Iraq and will not accept joining in any military action against Iran," Ibrahim added.

"Therefore, the USA passed the ball to the MB who received it as a golden chance to spread the spirit of scepticism about everything and the most important thing namely, 'the president's health'. Everyone knows that the president is the gu! arantee of security, stability and development in this country. He is also the guarantor of democracy and freedom," Ibrahim indicated.

Ibrahim accused the MB of spreading the rumour with the purpose of "causing chaos in Egypt and major instability on the stock market to dent the investment climate".

Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, USA deny accusations

The MB, Hamas and the USA have all denied the accusations. The MB wish the president good health, but, at the same time, they refuse to be brought into play for justifying the regime's failure to establish effective channels of credibility which do not allow such rumours, the MB general guide, Muhammad Mahdi Akif, told Al-Misri al-Yawm on 3 September.

Sami Abu-Zuhri, spokesman for Hamas, told Al-Misri al-Yawm that Hamas would submit an official request for clarification to the Egyptian leadership on the statements made by a political source in which the latter accused the movement of spreading the rumours. These statements are surprising and baseless, Abu-Zuhri said.

The US embassy in Cairo issued a statement on 3 September denying that the ambassador had given any statement on Mubarak's health. The statement stressed that the ambassador had at no time, whether in public or private meetings, voiced any concern over the president's health. The statement ! added that what had been circulated was "totally untrue".

Independent, opposition media blame government

The Egyptian independent and opposition press have been unanimous that the rumours had quickly found their way to the people owing to a credibility gap between the government and citizens.

In the independent daily Al-Misri al-Yawm on 2 September, Hasan Naf'ah said: "There is stubborn insistence [on the part of citizens] to challenge all official authorities and doubt the authenticity of what they say, which reflects a gap of credibility, the like of which can rarely be found in other political regimes".

Concurring, Muhammad Amin of the opposition daily Al-Wafd wrote on the same day: "The rumour shows a crisis of trust between citizens and the regime. Truly, there is a crisis of trust. It is serious and needs to be examined," he said.

Editor to face trial

Angered by the publication of news about the rumour in question, Egyptian judicial authorities summoned Ibrahim Isa, chief editor of the daily Al-Dustur, who is observed to be very critical of Mubarak in his articles, on 3 September for questioning about publishing news about the president's health rumour, Al-Misri al-Yawm reported the following day.

Isa, for his part, defended himself during an interview on private Al-Yawm TV's discussion programme "Cairo Today" on 3 September. "I remained silent on the rumour and did not cover it until colleagues working for other newspapers had written about it," he said. Isa also wondered: "Was Al-Dustur the only newspaper that covered this issue?" Isa added that "there is no freedom" for the press because "if there is freedom, you do not get worried while writing an article or publishing a newspaper".

But Isa's attempts to defend himself were to no avail. He is to face trial accused of damaging the "public inter! est", the Egyptian public prosecutor said on 11 September. Isa will appear in court on 1 October "for publishing false information and rumours in bad faith about the president's illness causing harm to public interest," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Succession "trial balloon?"

There has been speculation that the health rumours are linked to Jamal Mubarak, the president's son, who is widely believed to be the president-in-waiting. The Al-Misriyun online newspaper reported on 1 September that the "wave of rumours" had coincided with "direct instructions" given to chief editors of pro-government newspapers to highlight the "political and reformative" role played by Jamal Mubarak within the ruling National Democratic Party.

Al-Misri al-Yawm reported on 3 September that Faridah al-Naqqash, chief editor of the opposition leftist weekly Al-Ahali, had told the Dream 2 TV's "Al-Ashirah Masa'an" programme that the spreading of the rumour was a kind of "a test" ahead of "the takeover by Jamal Mubarak of power".

Mustafa Bakri, an MP, told a TV programme that the rumour was "a trial balloon" by "circles in the regime" to prepare the public opinion for "the next president", in reference to Jamal Mubarak.

Israel concerned

The rumour has also given rise to fears voiced by foreign parties. Israel expressed its concern that the disappearance of President Mubarak from the scene might bring Islamists into power.

"Any shock that destabilizes the currently stable regime might lead to the establishment of a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic state there, which will work in a way and maintain an agenda that will be similar to that of the extremist Shi'i regime of Iran," a senior Israeli political source told the Hebrew-language independent newspaper Ma'ariv.

Source: BBC Monitoring research in English 13 Sep 07



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