HOSNI Mubarak, the overthrown and jailed former president of Egypt, is close to death after suffering a stroke in prison, according to hospital officials.
The country’s state news agency declared him “clinically dead” after attempts to revive him failed and though this was later denied by his lawyer and a close adviser he was being kept alive only on life support in a Cairo military hospital.
Even as the country he led for three decades was grappling with the latest in a succession of constitutional crises triggered by the uprising which ousted him last year, Mubarak had earlier fallen seriously ill in Tora Prison hospital.
Prison officials summoned medical officers, who attempted to revive him with a defibrillator. They then ordered his transfer to the Maadi Military Hospital in south Cairo where further efforts to restart his heart failed.
Reports that he was clinically dead were later denied the lawyer, Farid al-Deeb, who represented him at his trial for complicity in murder, for which he received a life sentence on June 2. His former friend and close policy adviser, Mustafa al-Fiki, also told The Daily Telegraph: “He didn’t die – this news is not confirmed.”
The news that he was dead, apparently premature, sent a sudden silence through Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of people, many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, had gathered for a protest against the latest power grab by the military. Some in the crowd then began singing the national anthem.
In some streets of the capital, cars began honking their horns in apparent celebration, but elsewhere the atmosphere remained calm.
Mr Mubarak was clearly shocked to realise after his conviction that he was being taken straight to Tora Prison, where his sons Gamal and Alaa were also being held on corruption charges, rather than back to the military hospital where he had been staying in a comfortable suite of rooms and receiving visitors while on remand.
Reports that his condition had deteriorated immediately, even that he was in a coma, were not been taken seriously, partly because they were contradictory – at other times he was said to be merely “depressed” and complaining about his ill-treatment at the hands of the army he once led.
He had been repeatedly described as close to death following his fall from office last year, but had been well enough to attend his trial in person.
A large number of Egypt’s many conspiracy theorists believed that the reports of his ill health were at best an attempt by his remaining supporters to win sympathy and have him sent back to the military hospital, and at worst part of a complicated game by the military attempting to deflect attention from their own political manoeuvrings.
On Sunday night, just as the polls closed in a presidential election campaign that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, claims to have won, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued an edict reserving to itself sweeping constitutional powers.
It transferred to the army legislative and budgetary responsibilities and gave it the power to oversee a new constitutional committee and veto any new constitution proposal it made – more powers even than those previously exercised by Mr Mubarak.
The announcement set up a confrontation between the two most powerful political forces in the country, the one previously led by Mr Mubarak, the other the Islamist group which Mr Mubarak persecuted for so long.
The Brotherhood declared the ruling “null and void”, but by calling for a protest rather than taking the more direct action that some members had mooted, such as a parliamentary sit-in, appears to be stepping back from a direct confrontation.
Mubarak’s death would be met with genuine remorse by many Egyptians. Despite the long years of repression, police brutality and economic stagnation that he oversaw, opinion polls suggested he retained considerable support until late in his reign. He won particular sympathy after the sudden illness and death of his favourite grandson at the age of 12 three years ago.
Many Egyptians also thought he brought stability to the country after the more dramatic but often disastrous terms of his predecessors, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
But economic crisis followed by the exposure of some particularly outrageous examples of corruption led to an uprising against his rule, and the shooting dead of hundreds of protesters in its early days turned him rapidly into a bogeyman figure.
“I wish that God will forgive him,” said Georges Isaac, the leader of the revolutionary Kefaya movement. “But history will not forgive him.”