It was a very long night, as many have been in Egypt lately. For hours the world waited, along with the small army of journalists in Cairo, for news of Mubarak’s health. And for hours, no one knew if Egypt’s ousted president was dead or alive.
No official statements, no confirmation, no medical reports. Just a trickle of seemingly conflicting information from various medical and military ‘sources’ carried by news agencies, TV channels and online: he was “clinically dead,” had suffered a stroke and heart attack, was on an artificial respirator , was in a coma, was in critical condition, was almost stable, that doctors were trying to revive him.
Perhaps it was Blake Hounshell, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and one of the hundreds of western journalists covering Egypt’s tumult, who best summed up the mood in an online commentary : “Mubarak’s legacy is a hospital system that can’t diagnose him properly and a media system that can’t report the truth accurately.”
Indeed, Mubarak’s legacy is a country where the system is so broken, it is virtually impossible to get clear cut, accurate, definitive information on anything. Even the presidential results are being contested, with both candidates claiming victory.
And in a telling example of the absurdity, a former Jordanian minister who joined Al Arabiya TV in the early hours of Wednesday and was asked to comment on unfolding events started by saying that if Mubarak was in fact dead, then may God rest his soul, and if he was not dead, then may he get well soon.
Before long “Mubarak” was a trending topic on twitter along with a “MubarakDeath” hashtag. Some online said it reminded them of the early days of the revolution in 2011 when the words Tahrir and Mubarak were trending worldwide and a few even wondered if we should expect a speech or coup.
Within hours of the news breaking, a website was up and running http://mubarakdeadornot.com/ to keep track of the second by second commentary on Mubarak’s state and very quickly the website went viral.
At the height of the confusion, the official Reuters Top News twitter feed decided to go for ALL CAPS font when reporting that “EGYPT’S MUBARAK UNCONSCIOUS AND ON RESPIRATOR, NOT CLINICALLY DEAD - TWO SECURITY SOURCES TELL REUTERS” prompting some like Sherif Gaber who tweets @cairocitylimits to comment that “Reuters is getting Caps-Lock-y on us, people, apparently we have upset the news and they are yelling.”
Mubarak’s health, once taboo under this rule, has been the subject of intensive speculation especially after he received a life sentence earlier this month for his role in the killing of protestors in the uprising against him. The New York Times even published a story on the rumor mill surrounding Mubarak’s condition, in which David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim wrote that “the rumors of [Mubarak’s] deteriorating health are the latest measure of Egypt’s unsettled state, haunted by divisions and doubts, old specters and fresh paranoia.”
Earlier that evening Mubarak had been transferred from Tora prison where he was serving a life sentence for his role in the killing of protestors to a military hospital, something his lawyers had been pushing for.
Once it became clear that Mubarak was not dead and alive, the online sphere simply couldn’t hold itself back. One online comment said “BREAKING NEWS: Mubarak clinically annoying Newsers around the world.”
El Mundo’s Cairo correspondent Franciso Carrion tweeted in Spanish that Egypt had seen many never-ending nights in recent weeks and that it was the journalists who would be clinically dead before Mubarak ever was.
Another Cairo-based journalist Liam Stack tweeted “Now that Mubarak is clinically out of prison he seems to be fine.”
The news of Mubarak’s alleged death even infiltrated the ranks of Europe’s eurozone-crisis hardened press corps with the Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour tweeting “Euro ‘not clinically dead’ - brussels lawyers say.” Even the celebrity financial blogger who tweets @Zerohedge remarked: “In other news Mubarak is still either dead or alive.”
Egypt’s own blogger and former parliamentary candidate Mahmoud Salem who blogs @sandmonkey told journalists they should be grateful Egypt provided them with a steady stream of breaking news. “Dear Journalists... you prayed to the News gods to keep u employed, and they gave you Egypt. Be careful what you wish for next time,” he tweeted.
And so another sleepless night passed for Egypt and the writers, reporters, producers, editors and bloggers who follow the twists and turns in this unending saga. And on that night, Mubarak’s death was just the latest in a long list of rumor doing the rounds.
As visual artist Aalam Wassef put it: “A wrap up of today’s gossip: Shafik won. Mubarak is dead. El Shater is arrested. Morsi’s wife is no Carla Bruni. Something about a monkey.”
Carina Kamel is a senior correspondent for Al Arabiya based in London and be followed on twitter @carina_bn.