It is somewhat impossible to decipher between fact and fiction in Egypt when everyone speaks with authority about everything from their own health to U.S. foreign policy. Egyptian culture is such that if you refuse a cigarette, you may be deemed elitist, not health conscious; if you point out weight gain, you are observant, not rude; and when someone asks you for directions, you always give it to them, regardless whether or not you know the way.
It is therefore no surprise that late Tuesday night the nation was abuzz, both on the ground and online, over news that former president Hosni Mubarak was “clinically dead”—with theories rife over its significance just days before the winner of the first presidential election is announced. There were skeptics, of course—rightfully so; it wasn’t the first time he’d "died." Some authoritatively explained that his death is being used as a distraction from the current political transition. Ahmed Orabi, an engineer from Cairo, speculates that the ruling military junta does not want Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi to clench the presidency, so they faked Mubarak’s death as a way to win sympathy for Morsi's opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, a former member of the defunct regime. “It is a conspiracy,” he says.
Others believe the disgraced Mubarak has been dead for months, while some say he is in perfect health and living the good life in jail. “I don't think Mubarak is as sick as they claim he is, because no one has three heart attacks and a brain clot and survives them all in one week—our doctors are not that good,” Mahmoud Salem, author of the popular blog “Rantings of a Sandmonkey” said in an interview.
Mubarak’s lawyers later confirmed that he isn’t dead, but is experiencing a "fast deterioration of his health” and he has since come off life support. They say he has been transported from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for protester deaths last year, to a military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. Not that anyone believes them. Such is the mood in Cairo on the eve of learning who the next president will be—with both camps claiming victory and a bulk of the opposition turning their efforts toward ousting the military leadership. Tens of thousands poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday night in what was more a celebration than a demonstration. Some jubilantly waved Morsi banners and assured skeptics that victory is inevitable. Buses were parked all along the outskirts of Tahrir Square on Tuesday as hordes of people from the countryside traveled in to take part in the festivities.
“Thank God, Mohammed Morsi is our president and he will fix all that is wrong with our country,” said Omar Mohammed, 23, who bused in from the governorate of Fayoum to take part in the rally.
The only problem: we actually don’t know who the real winner is. A press conference by the Morsi campaign this week announced its victory—claiming 52.5 percent of the vote. But Shafiq followed with similar claims. The Carter Center, which is overseeing Egypt’s first presidential election, said this week that Egyptians went to the polls under difficult circumstances, with no new constitution, no Parliament, and fears that at any moment they could be detained in accordance with a new decree passed by the military last week. Further complicating matters, the Presidential Election Commission said Wednesday that it was delaying announcing a winner in the presidential runoff as it digs into more than 400 claims of fraud. So for the time being, there also continues to be no president.
The Carter Center cited poor voter education at about 15 percent of the polling stations. It also noted rampant allegations of illicit voter influence by both campaigns during the vote. “In the case of Morsi, this allegedly took place through the Muslim Brotherhood's existing charity and social service network,” the organization said in a statement. “In the case of Shafiq, it was alleged that his campaign was providing funds to family and community leaders in various governorates.”
Many of the country’s revolutionaries speculate that a deal is in the works between the winner and the military to secure leadership, amid calls for the establishment of a civilian, secular state. Security forces are already popping up across the country in anticipation of the announcement Thursday, with 3,000 police and soldiers deployed to strategic locations, including the Suez Canal.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan warned Wednesday of a “dangerous faceoff” between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the people if Shafiq is announced the winner, state-run Al Ahram reported. “Shafiq’s victory would signal an obvious military coup,” Ghozlan told the newspaper. The scenario has sparked comparisons to Algeria circa 1991, when Islamist gains in what would have been the country’s first democratic vote were scrapped, the state seizing power in a move that sparked a brutal civil war that left some 200,000 people dead.
The difference, says Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at National Defense University, is that the Egyptian military is far subtler than Algeria’s Pouvoir. “Algeria has a far deeper history of violence in the extreme than Egypt,” he said. “The SCAF are very good chess players. Le Pouvoir in Algeria are boxers outside of the Duke of Queensbury rules. Egypt is lucky is does not have the Pouvoir running the show or things could be a lot worse.”
Emad Gad, a member of the Parliament dissolved last week by Egypt’s high court and a member of the secular Social Democratic Party, said he does not expect a security escalation in either scenario. “Maybe small incidents if Shafiq wins, but I think it will be resolved quickly,” he said. “The fact is we still don’t know how many votes are in the bin, so Mohammed Morsi’s camp can say whatever it wants. It will be a very close vote, and it can go for either of them now. So we need to wait and see.”