President Barack Obama’s forthcoming address to the Muslim world in Cairo will be next week’s headline-hogging foreign policy event. Yet as far as long-term U.S. strategy in the Middle East is concerned, Obama’s address will be second fiddle to a far more consequential — even if less publicized — event: his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. For the administration, this will be a critical opportunity for assessing Mubarak’s physical health and, in turn, the probability of political upheaval in Egypt in the near future.
Since the sudden death of his 12-year-old grandson on May 18th, Mubarak has made only one televised appearance, with reports indicating that he looked ill. (The cause of the boy’s death is unknown, with reports claiming that he fell off a horse, suffered from food poisoning, or died of a heart attack.) Neither Mubarak nor his wife attended the funeral, nor have any new photographs of the Egyptian leader been printed in the state-run press. Mubarak further canceled his trip to Washington, which had been scheduled for earlier this week, and hasn’t met with any foreign leaders in nearly two weeks. To say the least, it is a rare period of public absence for the Egyptian strongman.
This has fueled speculation within the always-active Cairo rumor mill. One theory claims that Mubarak suffered a heart attack upon hearing of the death of his grandson. Meanwhile, a source has claimed to have “insider information” through a chain of doctors that Mubarak and his wife are both hospitalized.
Confirming or refuting these rumors will be the most important outcome of Obama’s short stopover in Egypt. If Mubarak is healthy — and his current absence is merely the consequence of understandable grieving — Obama will probably partner with the regime (human rights be damned) in pushing some variant of the Saudi peace plan as his major Middle Eastern foreign policy project (stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities be damned).
But if Obama finds an unhealthy Mubarak, all bets are off. The administration will have to confront the real possibility of imminent instability within the most populous Arab state — particularly the likelihood of a power struggle among factions within the regime and security forces. It will have to find the right balance between pleasing these regime-based factions and promoting liberal reforms; between promoting liberal reforms and constraining Islamists; and between short-term stability and a long-term push for democratization. Make no mistake: pushing for a smooth, post-Mubarak transition in Egypt could easily become the Obama administration’s top challenge in the Middle East.
For the moment, of course, this is all speculation. This is why Obama’s meeting with Mubarak — and the insight that this encounter will give the administration regarding Mubarak’s physical health — is so crucial.