Mubarak Near Death as Crisis Deepens in Egypt

As former president fades, wishful hopes for democracy in the country are also clinging to life.

Ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak slipped into a coma on Tuesday and was moved from his prison hospital to a military facility where he was placed on life support. The former president's condition was announced as "very critical" after suffering a stroke and at one point, the official news agency MENA declared him "clinically dead." But a spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) denied that report, saying that the 84-year-old Mubarak suffered cardiac arrest and was resuscitated by paramedics at the prison hospital. Mubarak's health crisis comes two days after Egyptians went to the polls to elect his successor. Official word will come on Thursday but both candidates -- Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister -- declared victory on Tuesday. The dual claims guarantee that no matter who is judged the winner, the loser will charge fraud and throw the country even deeper into a political crisis.

Widespread distrust of the military's claims about Mubarak's health was evident in Tahrir Square where tens of thousands of Islamists demonstrated against the recent power grab by the military. Most protestors believe that Mubarak's condition is not as serious as the military has said, and that the generals just wanted to move their former boss out of the prison hospital to the far more luxurious surroundings of a military clinic. The demonstrators were sent into the streets by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is angry at the verdict by the Supreme Court that dissolved parliament and subsequent actions by the generals who have issued a constitutional decree that eviscerates the power of the president and leaves the military in charge of the legislative and executive functions of government.

There was massive confusion throughout the day about Mubarak's true condition. After a news agency originally declared him clinically dead, the military council scotched that report, saying that the former president was on life support and in very critical condition. Upon the announcement that Mubarak was clinically dead, spontaneous expressions of joy erupted throughout Cairo with fireworks going off and protestors in Tahrir Square dancing and singing. But the news that the hated Mubarak was still alive dampened their enthusiasm and the protestor's paranoia of the military resurfaced:

"The military just wanted to make big news that would eclipse the Tahrir protests about the ruling military council, the elections and the amended constitutional," Mohammed Tarek, 27, an interior designer said, "It worked; the media suddenly started talking about Mubarak, and people started to leave the square."

But one woman welcomed the news of Mubarak's demise -- even if it was premature. "After 30 years of a brutal regime, the people wanted to say yes, they won for just a day, of course they are rejoicing" said a house wife from Sharabaya.

Mubarak had been in failing health for weeks and heard the verdict in his trial for facilitating the death of protestors from a hospital bed. Following his conviction and after being given a life sentence, he was transferred to a prison hospital where it was reported his condition deteriorated. As the news about Mubarak's health became grimmer, the former dictator's struggles were lost in the events of the last week, and the growing confrontation between the country's two power blocs -- SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The confusion about who won the election has led to competing demonstrations in the streets as supporters of both candidates are celebrating victory. Most observers believe the vote is very close, but that the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi has eked out a narrow victory. A count of individual polling stations, which announced their results on Monday, show Morsi getting 52% to Shafiq's 48%. On the other hand, Shafiq's camp has announced the former prime minister received 51.5% of the vote.

Both Shafiq and Morsi filed hundreds of complaints of election fraud with Shafiq claiming that the Brotherhood committed "systemic violations" of the law. Shafiq's camp also accused the opposition of ballot stuffing, and said that the Brotherhood bribed voters with money and food. "The organized and persistent election fraud by the Muslim Brotherhood proves they ... only talk the talk and never walk the walk of liberal democracy," said Shafiq's campaign.

The Brotherhood alleged bribes and ballot stuffing on the part of Shafiq supporters and flatly denied wrongdoing on its part. Shafiq is laying the groundwork for protest if he proves to be the loser, while Morsi's campaign has said the only way their candidate could lose is if the military committed massive election fraud.

While the election results will be important, the real drama in Egypt is the face-off between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood over the generals' decrees that have destroyed the Brothers' power base in parliament and effectively sidelined them when the new constitution is written. The military will appoint the members of the constitutional drafting committee, who will then create rules for new parliamentary elections. It appears that the military has checkmated the Brotherhood whose own power grabs in parliament, for the presidency, and in appointing a majority-Islamist committee to draft the new constitution forced the military to act. It should not be forgotten that the Muslim Brotherhood originally promised to only run in 33% of parliamentary districts and that it would not put up a candidate for president. The Brotherhood reneged on both promises and not only frightened liberals and secularists but angered ordinary Egyptians.

The Brotherhood claims that it will protest the SCAF decrees peacefully. But a little noticed ruling by the military last week before the Supreme Court verdict that dissolved parliament gave the police and military broad powers to arrest civilians and try them in military courts. This effectively re-established martial law in the country, and with it, it gave authorities tools that can be used by the army to effectively squelch the kind of mass demonstrations that toppled Mubarak.

SCAF has played its hand, laying its cards on the table and daring the Islamists to either raise or fold. The Brotherhood has been playing this game for decades and, depending on the outcome of the presidential election, might call for a new deal -- one that might see the group partnering with the military in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement. Or, the Islamists might go "all in" and call on their supporters and ordinary Egyptians to fill Tahrir Square to overflowing and pressure the military to back off or suffer the fate of their former boss who clings to life in a Cairo hospital, unconscious and unaware of the high stakes both sides are playing for.

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