Reporting from Cairo — George Ishak has been battling the political repression of the Egyptian government for years, so it seemed odd recently when he mentioned, perhaps with a bit of slyness, that he was praying for the good health of President Hosni Mubarak.
Ishak hasn't gone soft. His concern is rooted in opposition strategy, not a sudden pang of empathy for Mubarak, who is in Germany recovering from gallbladder surgery. The president's absence has reminded Ishak and his countrymen of their deep unease over who will eventually replace the man who has ruled the nation since the days when short skirts were as prevalent as veils.
"I prayed, 'Please, God, let Mubarak live another three to five months. If he dies now, the military will step in,' " said Ishak, an activist and a founder of the Kifaya, or Enough, party. "Our future is vague. We're all in trouble and we don't know what will happen. The opposition is putting together scenarios over what to do if we lose this man before we're ready to really pressure the regime for change."
The opposition is not alone in its concern about Mubarak's health. The ruling National Democratic Party has been polishing the image of the president's younger son, Gamal, as a likely successor. But the son has many detractors, and it may be too soon for him to summon the prestige necessary to take control of a sprawling police state with serious social and economic problems.
The dilemma speaks to the enduring grip the senior Mubarak, a key U.S. ally, has on the national psyche. Speculation about his health intensified March 6 when the 81-year-old president had gallbladder surgery and a growth removed from his intestine.
It wasn't until 10 days later, after a tumble in the stock market and a satirical Internet song, "Mubarak is Dead," that he appeared on TV, speaking with doctors. He is expected to be released from the hospital soon.
The Egyptian government has long been criticized for human rights abuses and the country's high inflation rates, but Mubarak's balancing of politics, the military and intelligence agencies has maintained stability. Without him, or if he leaves the scene too early, many wonder whether the nation would slide into protests and violence that would prompt an army crackdown before new elections were held.
"We fear chaos," Ishak said. "If that happens it would destroy everything. The NDP. The opposition. Everybody."
The political maneuverings have been further heightened by the return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has repeatedly called for democratic reforms.
Prominent opposition figures are encouraging him to run for president in 2011, though under the constitution, which ElBaradei is seeking to amend, he is ineligible. But his renown has given his National Front for Change momentum against the regime and the main opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
How far and how fast can ElBaradei and his supporters push? The NDP controls parliament and is not likely to pass reforms that would endanger its hold on power. ElBaredei has stated that his aim is to change the political culture and open up the government, but if he and other prospective candidates can't get into the government, what options, beyond the dangerous prospect of a nationwide social movement, does the secular opposition have?
"For so long there has only been two ways in Egypt: the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood," Ishak said. "But ElBaradei is giving us a third movement. The question is can we do this."
Some analysts believe the question is moot: "Mubarak will not change anything when he returns," said Emad Gad, with Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "I don't think he will make any changes to the constitution and he may call for early elections."
The opposition's disparate voices and fractured history make it difficult to rally public support. The Muslim Brotherhood's religious aspirations and control of 20% of the parliament have largely kept it independent. Internal rifts between moderates and conservatives have weakened the Brotherhood, and it may become less politically active.
Other opposition parties, such as Ishak's Enough and El Ghad, headed by Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in 2005 and was later jailed, have gathered around the National Front for Change. But there are jealousies over ElBaradei's stature and the ambitions of those such as Nour who believe they have paid the political price and earned the right to be candidates for president.
"Egyptians have always wanted to change," Nour said, "but after so many years under the Mubarak rule, they are afraid of who will bring this change and how capable a new president can be."
Sitting in his office, Ishak, a white-haired raconteur who leaned forward and widened his eyes to make a point, said "the people hate Gamal Mubarak" and that the opposition must not squander this opportunity.
"We are ready to pay the price of freedom," he said. "ElBaradei is sincere. He wants to make change. The people believe in him. They don't believe in some of the other opposition groups. ElBaradei is the symbol."
Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.