Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president for 24 years, will announce his candidacy for a fifth term Thursday, officials say. The event will be carefully scripted: He will declare his intention in Shibin al-Kom, the gritty Nile Delta village where he was born 77 years ago. Protocol will be followed, they say, and his party will then nominate him to stand for election Sept. 7.
But as Mubarak looks past the barely contested vote, little else in the largest Arab country seems assured.
After months of expectations -- high hopes for change that followed this spring's protests in Lebanon and Mubarak's own hints at more political freedom -- the longest-serving ruler of modern Egypt today is struggling through a season of discontent. There is nascent dissent against him, and far broader frustration over decades of perceived stagnation. Three nearly simultaneous bombings Saturday in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which killed as many as 88 people, have undercut the mantra of his government -- security and stability. Beyond his election this fall is another for parliament in November that will be viewed in the United States and elsewhere as the barometer of whether Mubarak will inaugurate long-awaited reform.
"Everything in the next year will depend on what happens in the next few months," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It's a critical moment."
Hardly anyone in Egypt views Mubarak's days as numbered, barring problems with his health or a decision to step down.
Always more tactician than visionary, he has proved himself a survivor through assassination attempts, a stubborn insurgency in the 1990s and regional crises that once led him to war. This time, he may benefit from the very irony of change: The new liberties provided to his opposition have revealed its divisions and weakness. The bombings, Egypt's worst terrorist attack, have cowed fiery opposition newspapers, at least for now. Frustration aside, many of Egypt's 77 million people seem reluctant to enter the political fray.
But the sense of decline in Egypt is often painful, and many see it in sharper focus now as Mubarak gets older and speculation on his eventual successor -- perhaps his son, perhaps a general -- is the country's favorite gossip. Some openly draw comparisons between Egypt today and the malaise in the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. And nearly every political setback is read as a further sign of the country's diminished standing or, worse, the state's inability to navigate crises.
As Mubarak prepares for another six-year term, a question is often asked in his bustling capital: What will the alternative to him be?
"It's like a soccer game," said Fahmi Howeidi, a prominent Egyptian columnist and government critic. "You see goals scored here and there, but you don't know how it will end. The government might lose the game, but we have no idea who would win."
A Diminished State
There's a popular joke these days traded in cafes in Cairo and by text messages on cell phones. Mubarak's aide enters his office at the palace. He asks the president, "Isn't it time you write a farewell speech to the Egyptian people?"
The president looks at him, confused.
"Where are they going?" he asks.
Mubarak's rule is perhaps most remarkable for its longevity -- six more years than Egypt's iconic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, more than twice as long as his successor, Anwar Sadat. Even today, many wonder whether Mubarak, then the vice president, would have inherited power had Sadat not been assassinated in 1981. After assuming office, he remarked that he had expected Sadat to make him head of EgyptAir or perhaps ambassador to London, rather than his deputy.
The eloquent and popular Nasser and the ostentatious and charismatic Sadat were before their deaths already larger than life. They made their reputations on bold moves that sometimes led to success -- Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal and Sadat's visit to Jerusalem -- and sometimes to unmitigated disaster. Nasser's legacy is forever defined by his defeat in the 1967 Middle East war.
Mubarak has eschewed the dramatic for the mundane, always the methodical staff officer who became a hero after the 1973 war with Israel, when he planned Egypt's air defenses. His rule is defined by an officer's sense of duty: Each step is calculated, risks are avoided. While Nasser often overreached, Mubarak is more conscious of his weakness than his power. At times, he has embraced reform -- more economic than political -- but only when he could gauge its outcome.
"Mubarak will be credited by history as the Egyptian leader who kept the country united by a strategy based on moderation," said Osama Baz, an adviser to Mubarak and longtime confidant. From his spacious office overlooking a turbulent stretch of Cairo traffic, Baz, 62, considered Mubarak's legacy: "wisdom, moderation, patience and modesty."
Egypt today, though, is a far cry from the country that led the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, when Cairo radiated culture and power to the rest of the region. Gone are legendary writers like Taha Hussein and Tawfiq al-Hakim, and revered musicians such as Um Kalthoum. In their place are Lebanese and Persian Gulf satellite channels that now reign over the Arab world's airwaves.
The killing by insurgents in July of Ihab Sherif, Egypt's top envoy to Iraq, was greeted by outrage at the government for failing to protect him and for sending him to a country that many view here as occupied by the United States and presided over by an illegitimate government. Even the bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh have raised questions. There, militants managed to smuggle hundreds of pounds of explosives into one of the country's most heavily policed sites. They did it despite a months-long crackdown that followed similar bombings in October.
"Where were the security forces?" the opposition newspaper Al-Usbuaa blared in a banner headline.
"We have not suffered from stability. We've suffered from total stagnation, total stagnation from 1980 until now," said Osama Ghazali Harb, an academic, editor and member of Egypt's upper house, the Shura Council. "It has reached its end, simply because it does not work. We cannot live in the modern world with a one-party system, a state-owned press, control by the bureaucracy and security over civil society and the unions. All these things must come to an end."
"This republic, this authoritarian republic, has become exhausted," he said.
At a demonstration in front of Cairo's Abdin Palace last week, a few hundred protesters shouted the word that serves as a nickname for the fledgling Egyptian Movement for Change and has become the rallying cry for ending the authoritarian republic.
"Hosni Mubarak," a ringleader called out.
"Enough!" the crowd shouted back.
"Anyone from the ruling party," he yelled.
"Enough!" they answered.
"State security," he cried out.
"Enough!" came the response.
And so on -- prisons, arrests, torture, elements of martial law. And the same response: Kifaya, or "Enough."
Hisham Saadawi, a youthfully slender 21-year-old engineering student from Cairo University, stood on the fringes. Like many, he was filled with the giddiness that comes with doing something long illicit -- protest. He smiled and quoted a proverb.
"Even if the bullet doesn't hit the target, the shot still makes a noise," he said.
But after nearly a year of unprecedented demonstrations, crossing red lines that once protected Mubarak and his family from insults, noise is largely the result.
Egypt's protest movement has given rise to a paradox: The more freedom it has to operate, the more its lack of support is exposed. Egypt's timid steps to liberalize politics have, in the end, revealed the opposition's weakness.
Leaders of the opposition have begun to reconsider what they can gain. At first, many said they believed that just speaking words long prohibited would unleash a new dynamic, drawing supporters into their ranks. Now they speak more soberly, with caution -- an admission that widespread apathy is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of Mubarak's rule. Aside from their protests, there remain few means to articulate the frustration in Egypt today.
"It will take years. Years, of course," said George Ishaq, a retired high school teacher who serves as Kifaya's coordinator.
Sitting behind a desk ordered with neat stacks, political cartoons along his wall, Ishaq is an engaging man imbued with the optimism of a reformer. His first political experience dates to the 1956 war, when British and French troops briefly occupied his home town of Port Said along the Suez Canal. As a 16-year-old, he handed out leaflets from the Communist Party, warning residents not to deal with the foreigners. Now a 66-year-old, he said he sees the best hope for the country in the generation of his children.
"You have to change the tools of education, the style of education, the culture, the media. It will take time," he said. "Until now, every door has been closed. You couldn't open anything." Egyptians, he said, shaking his head, are still "naive."
A 'Very Important Moment'
Mohammed Kamal and Mohammed Habib both have visions of bringing change to Egypt. Given the weakness of groups like Kifaya, they are probably the only two with the means to do it. Kamal is a ranking figure in Mubarak's National Democratic Party, part of what is known as its reform wing. Habib is a rising leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group.
Kamal said Egypt has reached a "very important moment," unleashed by Mubarak's tolerance of protests and criticism in opposition newspapers and a decision to make the Sept. 7 vote a contest between candidates rather than the traditional plebiscite endorsing his rule.
Crucially, the vote will force Mubarak, as an incumbent, to defend his record and elaborate "a vision for the future."
Kamal sees the crucial battle as one pitting young reformers around Mubarak's son, Gamal, against an old party guard dominated by such Mubarak stalwarts as Safwat Sherif and Kamal Shazli, who boasts of being the longest-serving parliament member in the world.
"I think we're entering a new phase in Egypt, a new phase where the old traditions, people and practices are fading away," said the young and articulate Kamal. "At the moment, the two live side by side, but I think the old has started to fade."
He calls Mubarak "the only one who can lead this transition to the future," and sees his election as a mandate to push ahead.
Others are less certain.
Mubarak has yet to purge old-guard figures like Sherif and Shazli. A constitutional amendment has set almost insurmountable barriers for independents to run against Mubarak, and after 24 years, he has yet to name a vice president, leaving his succession unclear. Many question whether Mubarak himself has the energy for reform so late in his career; suspicions are rife that he wants his son to eventually inherit power.
"The scene we're seeing now from the government continues to be repressive and authoritarian, toward the people in general and especially with the opposition," said Habib, the Brotherhood leader. "The regime relies solely on its security forces."
Though technically banned, the Brotherhood remains the country's best organized and most tested opposition movement, respected even by some secular activists for enduring decades of often vicious repression. (The government remains wary of its influence, considered the largest of any one group; the Brotherhood said 3,000 of its followers were arrested in a crackdown this year.)
Today's Brotherhood is a far cry from the group that challenged Nasser in the 1950s. It renounced violence under Sadat, and in recent months, it has startled many in Egypt by its new willingness to engage secular groups in demanding change and adopting at least the language of democracy. A poster in its headquarters reads, "Freedom is the way to real political reform."
As it is, Habib said, the government is irredeemable. An end to the emergency law in place since Sadat's assassination, a release of what the Brotherhood contends are political prisoners, and truly free and fair elections would lead to its demise, he said. That change will come through a popular movement that the Brotherhood says it wants to craft with Egypt's secular and liberal forces.
"We are sure that the process of reform and change cannot be done by one group alone, even if it's the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "The situation requires the efforts of everyone. The demands should come from all of us."
Even some Brotherhood leaders are cautious. "Ninety-seven percent of the Egyptian people are isolated from the political process," said Ali Abdel Fattah, another Brotherhood leader. "There's no threat from the people on the regime to force it to undertake a program of reform."
Wary of Change
Rida Bayumi, his arms folded over his ample waist, sat in Darb al-Ahmar, a gritty neighborhood tangled amid the grandeur of Cairo's medieval glory. His metal workshop is perched along an alley too narrow for cars, shadowed by mud-brick tenements and ramshackle stores plastered with advertisements for Pepsi and Arab pop stars like Asala and Hakim.
A father of four, he makes between $80 and $300 a month; it's enough, he said, to take care of his four children. He praises the protests. At the very least, he said, Mubarak will hear the words "and he'll study the complaints."
But Bayumi himself has no taste for politics, or for demonstrations.
"Let's assume I say, 'Down with Bush.' Do you think Bush will step down for my sake?" he said, draped over a chair in the street. "Do you think if 1,000 Americans did a protest at the Statue of Liberty, and unfurled a banner calling for Bush to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, that he would leave? That's why I refuse. It doesn't bring any result. The story is the same all over the world."
Bayumi would like more money, and his employees need even more. He detests the influence that the United States exercises over Egypt and the rest of the region. He shudders at the episodes of carnage in Iraq and, now, Egypt, and he recalls with nostalgia the days of his father and grandfather, an era replayed endlessly in popular black-and-white Egyptian films.
But he said, quoting a saying, "The one you know is better than the one you don't."
"Twenty-five years is experience," he said of Mubarak.
Change can mean many things in the Middle East, not least the unknown.
"I'm worried that change will make things worse, then even worse for us," Bayumi said. "I hope it will be good. I hope change will be for the better. But I worry only about the future of my children."