CAIRO — When Egypt's leader meets this week with President Barack Obama in Washington, U.S. officials may find themselves caught up in Egypt's No. 1 guessing game: How much longer can Hosni Mubarak go on?
The 81-year-old president has looked weakened and pale in several appearances in recent months. During a July visit to Italy, he was photographed being helped up the stairs. His office is resolutely silent about his health.
On the other hand, after 28 years in power he shows no specific sign of illness, and he has just traveled to Europe and toured the Egyptian provinces. Last month, in an interview on Egyptian TV, he appeared vigorous and talked in detail on a range of topics.
In White House meetings beginning today, Mubarak is expected to tell the Obama administration that Arab nations want peace, but are unwilling to abide Obama's call to make good-faith concessions to Israel until Israel takes tangible steps like freezing settlements, an Egyptian official said.
As part of its effort to resuscitate the peace process, the Obama administration has asked Arab countries to make small but symbolic gestures to normalize relations with Israel. The administration has also asked Israel to freeze all growth in settlements.
So far, neither side has agreed to Obama's proposed first steps and so the president is expected to look to Mubarak for help in breaking the latest Middle East deadlock, regional analysts said.
In Egypt, however, the most watched development could well be whether Mubarak is still able, which leads to the question of who would succeed him as head of the Arab world's most populous nation, an American ally that plays a critical role in issues ranging from Mideast peace efforts to curbing Islamic militancy.
Those most often cited are his son, Gamal Mubarak, and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. But since Mubarak has no vice president, even the mechanism of succession is unclear, leaving the choice to backroom machinations among the ruling party, the security services and billionaire businessmen.
The problem for Egyptians is that they are given no official information at all about their leader's health.
When Obama visited in June, Mubarak didn't greet him at the airport or sit in on his speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University. When they finally did meet, Egyptians were quick to spot the contrast.
"He looked so old when Obama stood next to him. . . . No makeup can hide that," said Ahmad Morsi Ahmad, a tax collector in his late 60s, talking with friends at a Cairo coffee shop.
A thickset man with a deep voice and ready smile, Mubarak no longer gives the impromptu news conferences. This week's U.S. visit is his first in four years.
The next presidential election is in 2011, and his National Democratic Party's grip on the levels of government, coupled with chronic voter fraud and an opposition in disarray, all but guarantees him another six-year term.
So far, Mubarak has given no indication he will stand down. But he could choose to use the rest of his term to put a successor in place, rather than die or be incapacitated and lose control of the succession.
Information from Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.