Mubarak's influence dies hard

Hosni Mubarak still casts a Sphinx-like shadow over the Egyptian psyche and political scene.

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He's clinically dead and on life support. He's fine, just slipped in the shower and briefly lost consciousness.

He's a heart-broken old man and a patriot who deserves to live out his days in relative comfort. He's a conniving drama queen who keeps faking medical emergencies to avoid going to prison.

It has been 16 months since Hosni Mubarak delivered one last speech to his people and was hounded from the national stage. But from his gurney, Mubarak, 84, still casts a Sphinx-like shadow over the Egyptian psyche and political scene.

Mubarak's daily health status and living conditions have become one more national guessing game for a country struggling through a messy transition.

Last week, in the middle of vote counting for a tight presidential run-off, Mubarak once again took centre stage.

On Tuesday, the state-run Middle East News Agency quoted anonymous sources with a report that he was clinically dead and his heart had to be shocked into restarting.

The news exploded through the international media. Mubarak was moved from the Tora Prison to a military hospital in a Cairo suburb.

The death watch was on. Several websites quickly popped up to address the question: "Is Mubarak dead yet?" The media even took to speculating about what his funeral might be like and who would attend.

Two days later, one of his lawyers said his heart had not stopped and there was no defibrillation. Mubarak had simply slipped in the shower and was recovering from a head wound.

Blake Hounshell, an editor of Foreign Policy magazine, summed up the confusion as evidence of the kind of Egypt Mubarak had built: "Mubarak's legacy is a hospital system that can't diagnose him properly and a media system that can't report the truth accurately."

In reality, Mubarak may not be clinically dead as much as clinically allergic to the prospect of a prison hospital.

It is noteworthy that his health scares always seem to happen just before or shortly after his transfer from private wings in military hospitals. But last week's drama underscores just how much of a grip Mubarak still has over this country - not just the man but the resilient system he built.

His institutions endure and seem destined to outlive their architect. The recent narrative in Egypt has seemingly centred on the country reverting to old habits that prove how far the revolution still has to go.

Egypt's military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), have moved to consolidate their power, seemingly backed by a compliant judiciary.

A constitutional court ruling dissolved a parliament controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, shifting legislative authority back to Scaf.

A military decree on Sunday greatly limited the powers of the incoming president and established the military as a de facto fourth branch of government.

Even the presidential run-off seems like a throwback to Mubarak, with a tight vote (results have yet to be announced) between the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister.

Mr Shafiq emerged from political exile just a few months ago, riding a wave of apparent nostalgia for the stability of the Mubarak era.

The fact that the vote went from 13 diverse candidates to a run-off between the Brotherhood and the security state is itself evidence of a lack of progress. It is a Mubarak-era choice and a depressing prospect either way for many Egyptian revolutionaries.

Despite the setback, Mubarak still represents a genuine Arab Spring novelty - an ousted dictator being subjected by his own people to something resembling due process. Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh both escaped their people's wrath.

Muammar Qaddafi, and before him Saddam Hussein, suffered a nasty end at the hands of their own people. Mubarak may, in the eyes of some, be getting off lightly but there is little doubt that his daily reality is a miserable one and that is a victory for his opponents. It just does not feel like one to many people.

It took 18 days to end Mubarak's reign. But the past 16 months have proven that the problem is far larger than just him and his family.