CAIRO — For 45 minutes on Wednesday, Egyptians weren't sure they still had a leader.
During the live broadcast of the annual state of the nation speech opening the new parliamentary session, a weak-voiced President Hosni Mubarak suddenly began coughing into a handkerchief - and the video feed was cut and replaced by patriotic music.
Traffic throughout the downtown was at a standstill due to security measures and military helicopters buzzed overhead. When the television cut back to the parliament it showed the worried faces of ministers and close-up shots of the Sheikh of Al Azhar and the Coptic Patriarch praying for the president's recovery.
Eventually the president returned and finished off his speech in a voice that gradually grew stronger. Parliament's deputies, overwhelmingly dominated by Mr. Mubarak's ruling party, gave him a standing ovation.
The speech ended quickly and Mubarak was whisked away in his limousine, followed by a fleet of motorcycles.
All indications are that the septuagenarian president suffered only "a mild health crisis," in the words of state television, but the incident has focused attention on the issue of succession for this key US ally and the most powerful state in the Arab World.
"I think it is a good warning signal," said Ibrahim Abaza of the liberal opposition Wafd Party. "It is very dangerous right now because there is nobody to succeed and it can open the way to conflict."
"Precedents are of very little value at this point, given that we don't have a vice president," says Muhammad Sayyed Said, the deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Mubarak has declined to nominate a vice president, saying only that it wasn't necessary and that there was no one qualified for the job.
According to the Constitution, the speaker of the parliament becomes president and then over the next 60 days parliament would nominate a new candidate, who would be a approved by the people in a referendum.
"The arrangement is not only authoritarian, but intrinsically awkward," says Mr. Said, since theoretically the people could reject the candidate. It is generally thought, however, that the military will step in and choose one of their own as a successor. Normally the minister of defense would be a shoo-in, but Muhammad Hussein Tantawi is also in his 70s and rumored to be ailing. "It's also generally assumed that his character is more conducive to a ministerial job rather than the presidency," said Said.
The two possible candidates most often mentioned represent two different trends in Egyptian politics, and both were in the parliamentary chamber while Mubarak was giving his speech. One is Lt. Gen. Omar Suleiman, the head of intelligence and frequent envoy to broker truces among the Palestinian factions. With his military background, he would fit squarely in the mold of Egypt's rulers for the past half century.
Then there is the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, who has had a higher profile lately as the head of the policies bureau of the ruling party. He's been spearheading a reform effort in the party and is believed to have the support of the business community. The 40-year-old Gamal, however, is young, and is believed to face a great deal of opposition from the party's old guard, not to mention the all-important military. Despite the hype, most analysts do not rate his chances of succeeding his father very highly.
"He can have this opportunity if the president decided to nominate him while he was still president, but not after he left," said Hussein Abdel Razek, deputy secretary general of the leftist opposition Tagammu party.
While the general feeling is that the military will ensure a smooth transition, the future course of the country is an open question. According to Hisham Kassem, president of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and a veteran political commentator, Mubarak's successor will be forced to open up the system and engage in more reform.
"While Mubarak can stall things for now and slow the pace [of reform], the new guy wouldn't be able to," he said. "Whoever comes in will not have the muscle to sustain what's going on," he added referring to the stagnant political system and cult of personality around the president.
Internationally speaking, analysts predict less change, since foreign policy is conducted by entrenched institutions like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Egypt would not change its support for peace with Israel, says Kassem, as the military has made sure that everyone in the upper ranks believes in the treaty between the two nations.