CAIRO Speculation about Hosni Mubarak's health has riveted Egyptians since he was sent to jail to serve a life sentence, a reminder that his legacy still hangs over the Arab world's most populous nation days before a run-off election to choose his successor.
The former president may have been pushed from power, yet many of his opponents worry that the institutions of state which kept him in office for 30 years are regrouping to reassert their grip after last year's popular uprising.
Some point to the deciding presidential vote on June 16-17, when Egyptians face a stark choice between the candidate of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Mursi, and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister who was a top military officer like his ex-boss.
"The fact that you have Shafik as a candidate for the presidency and that he has a real chance to be the next president does mean for me that the transitional period has been managed in a way to reach that result," said Hassan Nafaa, a politics professor who also campaigned against Mubarak's rule.
Reports of the 84-year-old Mubarak's waning health conveyed by various officials, newspapers and state media, offering scant and sometimes conflicting details of his ailments, have only served to fuel suspicions held by the former president's opponents.
Critics see such reports as a bid to have Mubarak moved to a medical facility, sparing him the humiliation of a prison hospital. Mubarak's lawyer says he is in a critical state and being denied the basic rights of a prisoner to proper treatment.
A prison official said Mubarak was in a stable condition on Tuesday.
"(Mubarak's) entourage has already used this way to gain the sympathy of the Egyptian people," said Nafaa, although he said he had no first-hand insight into the former president's condition. "We are in a very troubled moment," he added.
The interest in Mubarak's health recalled the latter days of his time in power, when speculation about whether he was fit enough to carry on emerged frequently from behind palace walls.
The euphoria that accompanied Mubarak's fall on February 11, 2011 has turned into deep uncertainty and worry for many Egyptians. The generals who took charge after Mubarak was toppled have overseen a messy and often bloody transition.
The final crucial step before the army formally hands over power to a new president is the election that gives Egyptians the chance to choose their leader for the first time in the history of a nation that stretches back to the pharaohs.
Yet, instead of uniting the country in the excitement of their first free presidential vote, the election has exposed deep divisions, with the outcome far from clear.
Many of those who took to the streets against Mubarak are angry that the army and police force, pillars of the former leader's rule, have survived the revolt intact and unreformed.
Though Mubarak was sentenced to life in jail, six top police officers were acquitted for lack of evidence. That prompted protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square because many felt Mubarak could now win an appeal.
"I came here because of the futile verdict on Mubarak. People came here to have a revolution for the country, but they laughed at us and stole it from us," said Osama Ahmed, 38, one of those who joined protests in Tahrir after the verdict.
Adding to uncertainty, a constitutional court is expected to rule on Thursday, two days before the vote, on whether a law that would block Shafik from running is constitutional. It will also rule on a case that could lead to dissolving the recently elected Islamist-led parliament.
Those rulings could plunge Egypt into renewed political turbulence.
For some voters, Shafik, with his military background, will be able to restore order after 16 months of turmoil, even though a Shafik win could also prompt unrest from those who would see his victory as a return of Mubarak's order.
For Brotherhood loyalists, Mursi offers a chance after decades of repression to give Islamists a chance to govern, while others are backing him simply to ensure a power transfer even if they don't really like the candidate or his party.
Yet the voters who picked centrist candidates in last month's first round face a difficult choice. They worry both about putting a conservative Islamist in charge and about handing power to the kind of military man who has ruled Egypt since the king was pushed off the throne in 1952.
Uncomfortable with both, some say they won't vote.
"The presidential race is clearly polarised between a member of the decades-old opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood and an official from Mubarak's administration," said Hassan Abo Taleb, a professor at Cairo University. "But do not forget that most Egyptian voters chose candidates outside this equation."
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who came third and fourth in the first round, together secured about 40 percent of votes cast. Shafik and Mursi each won less than a quarter of the ballots.
Sabahy and Abol Fotouh have criticised both run-off candidates, although Abol Fotouh grudgingly said voters should back Mursi. The April 6 movement which galvanised the anti-Mubarak revolt also reluctantly threw its weight behind Mursi.
Both Mursi and Shafik have sought to present themselves as the best guardians of the "revolution" that brought down Mubarak. Yet in Tahrir, where the revolt kicked off, many fail to find either convincing.
"We came here because we don't want Shafik and we don't want Mursi. If Shafik is in power, it is like having Mubarak. If we have Mursi, we will become just like (the Islamic Republic of) Iran," said Sameh Khalil, 24, at demonstration last week.
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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