Of all the crises that threaten to shake Barack Obama's presidency, few are more volatile than the ticking time bomb in Egypt, especially terrifying for the very reason that no one knows when it might explode. Hosni Mubarak, the 81-year-old former Air Force marshal who has ruled Egypt as a police state since 1981, might leave office sooner than anyone is expecting, opening a power vacuum that could send this U.S. ally, its 83 million citizens, and the regional political order spiraling into a fragile and potentially paralyzing tailspin.
Or he might not. Mubarak might well linger on for a few more years. Either way, the time bomb will be looming over Egypt for the foreseeable future, and Obama's fortunes in the Middle East will be determined in large part by whether this bomb explodes or gets detonated gently. It's not likely that Mubarak will go down voluntarily. In 2004, he told the Egyptian parliament that he will serve as president "until the last breath in my lungs and the last beat of my heart." Despite incessant rumors of his ill health, he doesn't seem close to those eventualities.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood--the only opposition group worth mentioning-is waiting in the wings. And the Egyptian regime is so wary of what could happen if Mubarak were suddenly removed from power that, according to one Western intelligence official, it has a detailed plan for shutting down Cairo to avoid a coup, fine-tuned to the detail of playing mournful Quranic verses on state television. Mubarak has never tapped a successor, so interim officials will take over the government to provide short-term continuity and prepare for emergency elections. If they happen, such elections are sure to bring more turmoil.
Due to carefully manufactured quirks in the Egyptian Constitution, the most likely candidate to win is the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, turning Egypt into a hereditary republic--a "republarchy," as Egyptian-American political scientist and exiled dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim warned in 2000. Gamal might be acceptable to Egypt's business class, but he is not popular. …