Egypt has slipped into an unusual state of political uncertainty in recent weeks, with increasingly bold street protests and rampant speculation over who will succeed President Hosni Mubarak.
The turmoil comes in a nation where continuity has long prevailed: Presidents stay in office until they die, change is not always welcome and security takes precedence over almost everything else.
The new climate could pose risks for a nation that has gone 50 years or more without genuine democratic rule. Fear of authorities, a sentiment constantly reinforced by reports of systematic torture of political detainees and criminals, appears to have diminished in recent months, at least among opposition supporters.
“Too much has been set loose,” said Rosemary Hollis, the top Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. “The regime believes people need a strong leadership and will rally behind Mubarak when things get messy. But it may be too late to clamp down and go back to how things were.”
On Wednesday, one day after Cairo’s security chief warned that authorities would strictly enforce laws requiring groups to get advance permission for protests, thousands ignored his warning and tried to stage anti-government protests in Cairo and two other cities. Police blocked activists in Cairo from gathering at parliament.
Three days earlier, hundreds of protesters from an outlawed but powerful Islamic group brought traffic in the heart of Cairo to a standstill for hours before scores of them were arrested.
Egypt’s potentially explosive mix is exacerbated by high unemployment and widespread poverty in a country where many are embittered by their perceived disenfranchisement.
What goes on in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 72 million people and a close U.S. ally since the mid-1970s, affects regional security. It also affects the country’s role as a key mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and a partner in the U.S.-led war on terror.
Mubarak’s health he will be 77 in May and has knee, ear and back problems but is generally fit for his age feeds the uncertainty, together with his frequent complaints in recent media interviews about his workload.
In his 23 years in office, Mubarak also has left vacant the job of vice president, leaving Egyptians wondering about his successor. His son, long expected to take over, denies having any presidential ambitions.
Another cause for the uncertainty is the possibility of a government crackdown if opposition groups persist with their protests.
Segments of the media are taking uncustomary liberties, questioning Mubarak in bold headlines.
“Will the president retire? Who will replace him?” asked a recent headline in the weekly Al-Osboa. “Who is Egypt’s next president?” asked another, in the weekly Al-Maidan.
“No normal channels for the transfer of power are left after nearly 24 years of authoritarian rule,” said Abul-Ela Madi, an Islamic-oriented politician and a member of a new movement demanding that Mubarak quit. “What we have is just speculations.”
Sustained U.S. pressure on Mubarak and the Egyptian leader’s subsequent decision to open presidential elections in September to other candidates are at the heart of the country’s new climate.
The decision filled Egyptians with a sense of possibility, although many believe it will make little difference to Mubarak’s chances of winning a fifth, six-year term if he decides to run.
Still, many Egyptians remain wary of the future.
“I believe we’ve entered a very dangerous phase,” Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, Egypt’s most prominent analyst and a former confidant of Mubarak’s predecessors, warned on al-Jazeera television. “An opening has been made and it will lead to much bigger things.”