SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT - Hosni Mubarak, whose presence was felt and feared throughout Egypt for 30 years, has fallen quickly and astonishingly out of sight, his exact whereabouts unknown. The prime minister declared Sunday that Mubarak was here, in a favored southern Sinai resort, and a senior U.S. administration official said the White House also believes that Mubarak is staying in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Mubarak remains unseen here so far, just as always. For the last five years, he has come to this sunny retreat for one or two days a week, often longer, local residents say, vanishing behind the high walls of a private compound adjacent to a hotel and golf course owned by his best friend, Hussein Salem. With the sea on one side, desert on another and heavily armed police blockades on the lone road leading to the hotel and nearby villa, he was invisible and secure, and here he was expected to enter exile.
But life behind high walls sounds as much prisonlike as privileged - Mubarak's hardly preparing to go snorkeling or gambling, the main diversions here. That could make Germany an appealing destination, with more opportunities to roam, and other reports put him there, perhaps to receive medical treatment.
Mubarak had been rumored to be ill since gallbladder surgery in Heidelberg in March, and the weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported last week that he would soon be bound for a German clinic.
Some well-placed officials here agreed with that theory, saying Mubarak had flown here Friday after he resigned but soon after boarded a plane for Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, where he spent the night and then continued on to Germany, the same route described by the independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. No, German officials said Sunday, not in our country.
"He's not in Germany, and he's not on his way," Steffen Seibert, the chief spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Sunday night. "This is a new round of rumors. There is absolutely no information that we have about this, and it would require him a visa to come here. So presumably we would know."
A manager at the Maritim Jolie Ville hotel next to the Mubarak villa here, who did not wish to be identified, said the hotel had no information about the former president. Presumably the platoons of heavily armed police could have been protecting family members, if not the man without a country himself.
If Mubarak does sit unseen and malevolent behind the high walls surrounding his villa, with a machine gun nest perched protectively above, then who are the people of Sharm el-Sheikh to care?
Not Mohamed Abu Elennen. He is rejoicing in his indifference. Reaching for more superlatives, he fails, because he cannot yet completely grasp what has happened.
"Today I can speak with you," he says quietly, "and I am not afraid. I don't have to worry about being killed. Not arrested. Killed."
Elennen is a solid citizen, general secretary of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association in a region heavily dependent on tourism. His office manager is a former member of the Mubarak security team. And yet, until the anti-Mubarak demonstrations began in Cairo, Elennen lived in fear, unable to speak freely and deeply worried about the future awaiting his 13- and 17-year-old daughters.
That Egyptians have made Mubarak impotent brings Elennen unfathomable joy - the kind of joy that brings you to tears every time you think about it, he says - so Sharm el-Sheikh or Germany, what does it matter? Except for one thing. The money.
"Where is the money?" Elennen asks. "What did he do with our money?"
Mubarak and his family are widely considered to have accumulated considerable wealth during the last 30 years. Switzerland has declared it would freeze any of his assets in that country. British officials suggested Sunday that governments around the world should develop a common approach to questions of Mubarak assets abroad, preparing for any Egyptian efforts to reclaim them.
But a country just beginning to reinvent itself, forming a new government and conjuring up a plan for elections, has not yet had time to go after the money.
"Truly, about the money, I have absolutely no knowledge," Egypt's ambassador to London, Hatem Seif el Nasr, told the BBC on Sunday.
"No one knows where all the money is," Elennen says. "We have a lot to investigate."
The protests in Cairo, nearly 400 miles away, left Sharm el-Sheikh outwardly untouched, except for the disappearance of tourists who were told by their governments to stay home. The beaches are placid, the streets tranquil. It is only words that drop explosively from many an Egyptian mouth.
The former Mubarak security guard is not yet prepared to have his name published in an American newspaper, but he is eager to tell how much he loved Mubarak - he was a great military man and did much for the country - and just as enthusiastic to describe how much he despised the deposed leader's wife, Suzanne, who was snooty and ordered the guards around like they were so much dirt beneath her feet.
Bored shopkeepers waiting for the T-shirt-buying Italian, German and Russian tourists to return are eager to tell a passing stranger how they have emerged from a generation of slavery. A clerk in a city agency wonders aloud how a president will manage exile. A man working next to her proclaims, "We all love Mubarak very much."
Every Friday of the Cairo protests, Elennen drove with his family to stand in Tahrir Square. A brother-in-law returned from Saudi Arabia to be there; other relatives came back from Morocco.
"If I didn't go," he said, "I felt I didn't deserve to be an Egyptian."
He was there, with and for his daughters. Elennen's wife is Algerian, and their children often would say they were Algerian, ashamed of Egypt and its poverty and servility. Now they feel like citizens of a brave and powerful country, and proclaim themselves entirely Egyptian, bringing Elennen close to tears once more.
And Mubarak, whether here or there, invisible or in the open, simply does not matter.
"Let him stay, but how can he live where 80 million people hate him? Not dislike him. Hate him," Elennen says. "But I? I have forgotten him. If I think of him, I'm wasting my time. I cannot afford that. We have a new country to build."
Correspondent Michael Birnbaum in Germany contributed to this report.