CAIRO // Although his health is the subject of rumour at home and intense speculation abroad, it all seems business as usual for the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday, for instance, Mr Mubarak, 82, met the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell.
To top it off, he even hosted Somalia's president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Yesterday, he attended a graduation ceremony at Cairo's Police Academy and toured a new extension of the capital's international airport. Yet The Washington Times, in a story published on Monday, reported that Mr Mubarak is suffering from cancer of the stomach and pancreas and could die within a year. The story, only the latest in a spate of reports about the Egyptian leader's allegedly declining health, quoted unnamed US and western intelligence sources.
The reports elicited the expected denials from Mr Mubarak's circle of aides, advisers and top officials. "This is nonsense. The president's health is very good, and he has busy schedule and is attending graduation ceremonies of military schools almost on a daily basis," a source close to the presidency said on condition of anonymity. "The president's activities are the answer to media reports about his health," the source added, detailing a round of police and military ceremonies Mr Mubarak was scheduled to attend in coming days.
The latest flurry of rumours about Mr Mubarak's health erupted last week with a report in the Lebanese daily Al Safir that said the president was suffering from cancer and was going for treatment in Germany, where he underwent surgery in March and had his gall bladder and an intestinal polyp removed. No cancer was found in the removed tissue, said Dr Markus Buechler, the director of surgery at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany. "I am fully satisfied with the performance and the outcome of the surgical intervention," Dr Buechler said.
The Al Safir account was accompanied by several Israeli media reports indicating that cancer and deteriorating health were the reasons Mr Mubarak was twice forced to postpone scheduled meetings with Mr Netanyahu. Israeli officials, at least publicly, vouched for Mr Mubarak's health. "I spoke to him very recently. Without being a doctor, I can be sure by the sound of his voice that he is in excellent health and will remain in the political arena for a long time," the Israeli trade minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer told Israel's Army Radio. "I noted that he is strong and very angry about all the rumours concerning his health."
The revival of questions about Mr Mubarak's health comes at a politically awkward time for the president, especially in ties with Washington. There are persistent reports that he has brushed aside appeals from President Barack Obama to bring forward elections, scheduled for 2011, to prevent a power vacuum. Mr Mubarak, in power since 1981, has no vice president and has not said whether he is planning to contest next year's election, which will probably take place in September.
When it comes to questions of the president's health, Egypt's media are circumspect. Four editors of independent and opposition dailies and weeklies were sentenced to one year in prison in 2007 when they speculated about the president's health. The sentences were suspended without any of the convicted journalists spending time in jail. Nevertheless, a cautionary message was sent. Thus, most of the media pronouncements concerning the latest health rumours were bullish.
"President Mubarak's health is excellent and his schedule next week is very busy," read the headline of the state-owned Rose El Youssef newspaper on Friday. Mohammed Hamdy, in his column for the newspaper, wrote: "President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling Egypt for the past 29 years, which created a special bond between the president and the people and make them concerned about his health and the future.
"It's due to this special Egyptian case, there are growing rumours about the president's health and they usually come from the Israeli media and are picked up by some private owned [Egyptian] media," he added. Alongside the generally rosy portrayals of the president, there were some well-connected Egyptians who lamented the dearth of discussion about what Mr Mubarak's health and advancing age meant for the country's future.
Amr el Shobaki, a political scientist and columnist with the independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm, bemoaned the "absence of official statements on the president's health". "Its unfortunate that the [state-owned] media in Egypt is engaged in a war against human nature, and imagine that any close follow up on the president's health are rumours that are aimed at Egypt's stability," said Mr al Shobaki. "Considering leaking a rumour or piece of information, even if wrong, about the possibility of the president going back abroad for medical treatment, as a crime, doesn't bode well for the president ... and reveals the totalitarianism we've reached."
In contrast to Mr Mubarak's March trip to Germany or his collapse during a speech in parliament in 2003, many ordinary Egyptians seem either unfazed or simply accustomed by now to dire foreign reports about their president's health. The related issue - presidential succession - draws similarly unconcerned responses. Gamal Mubarak, 46, the president's youngest son, has been widely seen as an heir apparent, despite denials from son and father.
However, his presence in the political scene has waned since his father's operation in March, which came just two weeks after the return to the country of Mohammed ElBaradei, 68, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whom many see as a qualified potential presidential candidate. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse