CAIRO // Egyptian state-owned media reported that the president, Hosni Mubarak, had a successful surgery in Germany yesterday to remove his gall bladder, and had temporarily handed over power to the prime minister until his return.
State media had earlier said Mr Mubarak, who was on a visit to Germany on Thursday to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, was experiencing gall bladder pains and that the organ was severely inflamed. He underwent surgery in Heidelberg University Hospital and had issued a presidential decree delegating presidential powers to the prime minister Ahmed Nazif until his return. "He is in intensive care after waking up and talking to members of his family and doctors," said a presenter on state TV, adding that doctors would later give a medical briefing.
His wife and two sons, Alaa and Gamal, as well as the health minister, Hatem el Gabali, were with him, reports said. "The president's health is an important issue that concerns every Egyptian citizen and has to be addressed and reported with transparency in the media," the information minister, Anas el Fiqi, was quoted as saying in a telephone interview from Germany with the independent daily newspaper Al Shorouk ahead of the operation.
"The state's approach this time is the outcome of our battle to obtain information about the president's health," said Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of the opposition daily Al Dostor. "The state learnt from its previous mistakes that hiding news about the president's health and treating it as a military secret, would only cause the media to speculate and people to panic." Eissa, along with three other editors of independent and opposition dailies and weeklies, were sentenced to one year in prison when they speculated about the president's health in late 2007. The verdict was suspended and they did not serve any time in prison.
Mr Mubarak, 81, has been in power since 1981, and has no vice president, which is why he delegated presidential power to Mr Nazif, who had remarried recently and was reported to have been spending his honeymoon in Luxor. For years, the president has said he has not appointed a vice president because he could not find a suitable individual. However, in the past several years, speculation has been rife that his youngest son, Gamal, 46, is being groomed to succeed his father. Such speculation has outraged the opposition here, which does not wish to see power in Egypt passed down hereditarily.
In a joint press conference with Mrs Merkel on Thursday, the president seemed to be in good health. He addressed, for the first time, the return to Egypt of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear monitor, two weeks ago to a hero's welcome. Mr ElBaradei, 67, is calling for change and amending the constitution and said he might consider running in next year's presidential elections. "Egypt does not need a national hero because the whole people are heroes," Mr Mubarak said. Anyone can run "in line with the constitution and join any political party he chooses", Egyptian newspapers quoted the president as saying on Friday.
Mr Mubarak did not mention Mr ElBaradei by name. The constitution was amended in 2005 and 2007 allowing only senior leaders of already existing political parties to contest a presidential election. Mr ElBaradei and many opposition figures want the constitution amended again so qualified independents can run as well. Mr Mubarak has been known as an athletic person who wakes up early to play tennis before he starts daily work. He has had a full schedule lately, visiting different provinces, opening factories and other projects; some observers have said the increase in the number of appearances was a reaction to Mr ElBaradei's unexpected warm welcome, which has stirred an otherwise stagnant political life.
Wael Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian columnist with the Lebanese daily newspaper Al Akhbar, said the announcement about Mr Mubarak's health tests and operation should be viewed within the latest political developments. "The regime is sending a message that Egypt is a state of institutions, not persons, and that the constitution is active and respected, and that the regime is stable," he said in a telephone interview. "The regime is also saying they are the ones who have the facts and choose the timing of announcing them.
"The Egyptian people have passed the stage of panicking over the president's health, they are more concerned about the post-Mubarak era." "The president is only human, and it's only natural that he would want to rest," said Arwa Medhat, in her twenties, at a cafe in Heliopolis. "We have to think about who would be Egypt's next president; it could be ElBaradei or somebody else, we have to have options."
Neither Mr Mubarak nor Gamal Mubarak have announced whether they would run in the 2011 elections. Shortly after the last presidential elections, in 2005, Mr Mubarak said he would remain in power as long as he is breathing and his heart is beating. Mr Mubarak underwent surgery for a slipped disc at a Munich hospital in 2004, an event that sparked rumours about succession and sent jitters through Egypt's financial markets.
In 2003, he collapsed briefly during a live speech to parliament. Officials said that was caused by a combination of cold medication and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
No date has been set for the president's return from Germany.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Reuters