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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 September 2007, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
The cost of saying Mubarak is ill
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Cairo

Rumours about the health of President Hosni Mubarak continue in the Egyptian capital, despite assertions from the authorities that he is fit and well.

When Mark Twain read that his own obituary had been published he cabled the newspapers to assure them that he was still in fact alive, famously remarking that "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated".

Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt (Photo: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Mr Mubarak has ruled Egypt for more than 25 years

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt might consider a similar tack.

For weeks now Cairo has been full of rumours about the president's health, or lack of it.

The news came at me from all angles, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, friends of colleagues, even wives of colleagues.

"Have you heard?" they would ask. "The president is ill."

On a few occasions I was even told in hushed tones that the president was, in fact, dead and had been for weeks.

'Silly season'

These stories can be hard to resist. Firstly, because death is news.

The media love to ruminate about and rehearse for the death of important figures - monarchs, religious leaders, actors - and of course presidents.

The other reason this story proved hard to resist was because it happened in the 'silly season', that time of year when very little happens in the world - when people go on holiday - including presidents.

But papers must publish and the media must broadcast.

So the threshold for what constitutes a real story plummets.

This summer in Cairo one of the silly stories was about President Mubarak's health.

President Mubarak's son, Gamal
Many believe son Gamal may be next in line

Now, I am not saying that the president's health is not a story.

Hosni Mubarak is perhaps the most important political figure in the Arab world.

He has been the leader of the region's most populous country for more than a quarter of a century - a pivotal ally of the West and an influential figure in the politics of the Middle East.

He is approaching 80 years old and has had health problems in the past.

But just because we hear he is at his summer retreat and is not appearing in public every day does not mean he must be dead, especially when every journalist in Cairo knows that we are ambling along a well-trodden path.

Sure enough, Hosni Mubarak was there, waving and smiling and alive
Last April the city was also abuzz with rumour that the president was unwell or dead. I telephoned a senior government contact to check.

I only got as far as: "Hi, it is Ian Pannell from the BBC. Can I ask..." when I was cut off with a loud and firm:

"It is not true."

To reassure everyone we were told that the president would appear at an important football game that evening to be broadcast live on Egyptian television. It was the best watched match of the season.

And sure enough, Hosni Mubarak was there, waving and smiling and alive.

Punishing rumours

So, when a similar story does the rounds just a few months later the wise option would be to steer well clear of it.

But a number of Egyptian newspapers - in particular the opposition and independent ones - did not, choosing to run stories about the rumour, in some cases on the front page, all to the intense irritation of the presidency.

The official response has been robust.

First came the very public and protracted photo opportunity to prove that the president was in fact alive and well.

Then Hosni Mubarak himself spoke out.

In an interview with a pro-government newspaper he accused "illegitimate movements" of being behind the rumours, a not very veiled reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition group.

Then the first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, in a rare television appearance said that journalists who published the rumours deserved to be punished.

Ibrahim Issa, editor of Egyptian daily Al Dustour
Ibrahim Issa, editor of Egyptian daily Al Dustour, is to stand trial
And that of course was the next move. Singling out one newspaper and one editor, among many, for trial.

But by responding in this way the presidency and its supporters have turned what began as a rumour into a real story.

They have also illustrated two important things about the country.

Firstly, Mr Mubarak will not go on forever and there is no obvious successor.

Most here assume it will be the president's son, Gamal, who will take over.

But there is anxiety about who and what comes next.

Secondly, the capacity to tolerate criticism and critics has slumped to a new low in Egypt.

For example, the man who dared to challenge Hosni Mubarak for the presidency languishes in jail.

The group that dared to challenge the ruling party in parliamentary elections has its members routinely rounded up.

And internet bloggers, vociferous in their opposition, have also been detained, beaten, and had some websites blocked.

So, to be clear, President Mubarak is alive and well, again.

And there is another Mark Twain quote that the President might like to consider the next time he reads that he is unwell or dead.

The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 15 September, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Mubarak's quarter of a century
13 Oct 06 |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
24 May 01 |  Country profiles
Editor charged over Mubarak story
13 Sep 07 |  Middle East

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