After the Pharaoh; Who, or What, Will Replace Hosni Mubarak? Some Say Democracy, Others Chaos. It's the Question All Egyptians Are Now Asking. No One Has an Answer

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey (With Stephen Glain and Vivian Salama in Cairo)

During his recent weeks in prison, one of Egypt's best-known bloggers, Alaa Abdel Fateh, had a terrible fantasy. What would happen to him if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 78, the man he loves to hate, passed away while Abdel Fateh was in the slammer? "I'm sure millions are actively praying for his sudden death," he wrote in one of several postings that were smuggled out. "Normally I'd be happy. But now that I'm in jail it's a scary thought."

His nightmare scenario? That it would take months for order to be established, with who knows what result. The 24-year-old blogger wrote from the four- by six-meter cell he shared with five other prisoners: "Most likely no one but our immediate family will remember us until it is over. In my mind most people will continue living their lives normally. The huge bureaucracy will chug along, but all security organs will be paralyzed. No officer will wake up the next day and head for his post. Which means [the] prison will be abandoned." What might follow, he dared not imagine.

The irony of Egypt today is that many people, even those who detest Mubarak, share Abdel Fateh's misgivings about a future without the man who has been their ruler, their protector and some would say their jailer for almost 25 years. No matter how much they want to be rid of him, they cannot imagine, quite, who will be in charge and how order will be maintained. Will they be liberated? Or locked down even tighter than they were before? Will power pass from the father to the son, the suave 42-year-old Gamal Mubarak, as many expect? Or to the military? Or to the Islamists? Or will the country descend into chaos as all the contenders compete? The stability of the region, and what's left of the fragile U.S. policy there, depends on an orderly transition. But so much political dust has gathered in Egypt that, once it's kicked up, years could pass before it settles.

Just last summer, a contagious excitement about democratic change was sweeping the Middle East, encouraged and sometimes inspired by Bush administration policies and rhetoric. There had been a massive turnout for Iraq's first elections, then huge protests that drove Syria's troops out of Lebanon. In Egypt, Mubarak decided to allow opposition candidates to run against him for the first time in presidential elections.

But since then, the Iraqi quagmire has deepened. Lebanese politicians now live in terror after a long string of assassinations. Mubarak's leading opponent in last year's vote, Ayman Nour, languishes in prison with no further chance of appeal; Egyptian parliamentary elections were cut short and the results shamelessly rejiggered to limit the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood; new municipal elections have been postponed. Judges who rebelled at being forced to endorse the parliamentary fraud were prosecuted, reprimanded or reined in. The opposition has not been silenced, but fear hangs heavy in the air.

At the slightest hint of street protest, cohorts of riot police seal off whole sections of Cairo. Hired thugs with police protection are let loose on the dissidents. Mahmoud Hamza, a judge who tried to film one such crackdown in April, was left with internal bleeding and a broken arm. "I believe I am under surveillance and my phone is tapped," he says, adding that his cell phone was taken and the calls on it traced. Hundreds have been arrested. Most are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed but also tolerated as a useful political enemy by a government that wants the threat of Islamism to be the only alternative. The Brothers are now the second largest party in Parliament, with 20 percent of the seats.

For many in egypt, lastyear's dreams, this year's bare-knuckled beatings, and the coming years' growing uncertainties resemble the magical realism of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia MArquez, whose works are popular throughout the Middle East. …