Egypt ponders health of Mubarak and democracy

Egyptian men look on at graffiti of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak The system Hosni Mubarak created is itself on a life support machine, operated by the Egyptian army

Somewhere inside the dark grounds of the military hospital, the old strongman of Egypt was facing the final certainty, before which none of us is strong.

Fluorescent light, yellow and muted, gleamed bleakly from 100 windows.

Rumours swirled like gusts of cigarette smoke in the midnight air, carried on the sudden breezes that cooled Cairo after a sweltering day.

Hosni Mubarak had had a heart attack; a stroke. He had no pulse. His heart had stopped and been restarted. He had been defibrillated, medevaced, intubated, and ventilated. He was brain dead, clinically dead, just dead.

Slowly, it became clear that he was paused somewhere between life and death, just as the country he led for so long found itself suspended between autocracy and democracy.

The tough, brilliantined old general who shaped and directed the old system appeared to be ending his days as a kind of metaphor for it.

The word that his chronic ill-health had slipped into crisis came at the end of a febrile day in Cairo.

It had been hot, nearly 40C, and a thick cloud of dusty air had sat on the city all day, like a fat man squashing down on an air cushion.

As day gave way to night, Tahrir Square beside the Nile in the centre of the city began to fill with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood claiming victory in the first free presidential elections in Egypt's history.

As the country's creaking democratic machinery prepared to crank out the final, official results of the presidential elections, a separate political process conducted in parallel by the army and the Constitutional Court was reaching a few conclusions of its own.

Keeping control

Parliament - elected last November and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood - was dissolved.

Egyptian supporters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Mursi gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square This is Egypt's first experiment with democracy

The generals, who are finding having control over every area of Egyptian life a hard habit to break, will have a big say in the future constitution and they have the power of arrest and detention again.

It feels like a kind of creeping, slow-motion military coup - albeit a very post-modern one which involves announcements on social networking sites rather than tanks on the lawn.

The army, of course, says it is no such thing.

There will be fresh parliamentary elections at some point, and a new constitution and power should be handed over to the new president on time at the end of the month.

But the generals will retain huge influence - even if they take their uniforms off and wear suits while they are exercising it.

Everyone has their favourite point of historical comparison - Portugal in 1974, Turkey in the 1980s and Pakistan in the 1990s are analogies I have heard for countries where men in uniform were more important than men in office.

Of course, simply holding elections was never going to turn Egypt into Sweden or Switzerland overnight. The roots of military influence are too deep for that.

And, in the minds of many Egyptians, there is a further issue too.

Life support

Political Islam is the clear, overall winner of this country's first experiment with proper democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been at pains to present a non-threatening face to the rest of Egyptian society - but its opponents have lots of unanswered questions about what Islamist rule might ultimately mean. Segregated schools and beaches? Headscarves and veils for women? A ban on the sale of alcohol, perhaps?

Egypt went directly from having no democracy at all to having a fatiguing and confusing amount of it.

Egyptians have been asked to vote on 25 occasions in the past 15 months using a parliamentary system that would have taxed the understanding of the most seasoned pundit.

By the second round of the presidential election, turnout was down to 50% and the winning candidate got a whisker over 50% of that, hardly a mandate for permanent and profound social change.

Lots of Egyptians might be secretly glad that the army is there to limit the powers of the presidency - even if they know that does not sound terribly democratic.

It seems unlikely that Hosni Mubarak - ailing and in his mid-80s - will live to see how it all works out. So, in the end, the analogy between his health and the system he created does not quite hold up.

There is a certainty about the fate that ultimately awaits him - and the rest of us of course - even if he cannot know when the end will come.

The system he created is on a life support machine operated by the Egyptian army. No-one can tell when that might be switched off, or what will happen when it is.

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