Cairo is burning--in installments. It is a distinctively Egyptian joke, resonant as it is with politics, history and resignation. Last year, several of the city's landmark buildings burned under mysterious circumstances. In August, the top floor of the Parliament's Shura Council went up in flames as firemen, apparently short of adequate water supplies, looked on. A month later, the National Theatre was gutted . In November, thugs attacked the offices of the opposition El Ghad party  with blowtorches while party members huddled inside and riot police stood by.
Cairo's immolation, the quip suggests, is a parody of the January 1952 blaze that consumed much of the city's commercial district and sparked a revolution. It is a tribute to the past and a morsel of wry humor from a people laid low by President Hosni Mubarak and his sclerotic, oppressive regime. As the country prepares for national elections in 2011, which Mubarak may or may not contest, the suspicious combustions have yet to kindle a popular uprising. But dissatisfaction with his rule and the prospect of a dynastic succession in a country that long ago overthrew a monarchy could make for a messy transfer of power in the Arab world's political epicenter.
The 80-year-old Mubarak has long depended on Egyptians' passivity--not to mention the implicit green light from Washington to persecute and incarcerate with impunity and the billions of dollars in annual subsidies guaranteed by the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. But the former air force chief , who came to power after Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, is stretching the limits of his nation's good humor. His estrangement from the citizenry widened with his declaration of war on Hamas during Israel's winter assault on Gaza, and his circle of advisers, like a noose, has drawn tighter.
Mubarak has not announced if he intends to stand for another six-year term in elections scheduled for 2011. He may abdicate to an army general or the head of state security, or transfer power to his son, Gamal. One of the only public references Mubarak has made to the prospect of transition was in 2007, when he assured his former military colleagues that he would die in office.
Political observers are about evenly divided over whether a military man or Gamal will succeed Mubarak. Ibrahim Issa, the outspoken editor in chief of the daily newspaper Al Dustour, leans toward the brass. "There will be a struggle between the generals, the businessmen and the bureaucrats," he says. "The businessmen are hated, and the bureaucracy can't bear the idea of chaos, so the army will win. And why shouldn't they? They rule the country anyway."
Issa is a portly man with black horn-rimmed glasses, a droopy black moustache and kinetic eyebrows. His office walls are covered with life-size portraits of fellow revolutionaries Che Guevara and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and he is possessed of an authentically rapier Egyptian wit.
"Hosni Mubarak would never give up power," he told me. "He'll rule until he drops dead, and then Gamal Mubarak will be Egypt's Prince Charles." What about Washington? "The Americans bought Mubarak twenty-eight years ago because they believed he could maintain peace," said Issa. "But this was the tragedy of the Shah of Iran, when Washington supported him over Mossadegh. The Americans always trade despots for stability, and they get 'extremists' instead."
For Israel and the United States, that means the Muslim Brotherhood, the Cairo-based global Islamist movement. Ikhwan in Arabic, it is by far the best organized and most popular political group in Egypt. Though banned by law--its members campaign and serve as independents--it controls the largest opposition bloc in Parliament. The Brotherhood poses the greatest potential threat to Mubarak's rule, yet it is also his guarantor of survival.
In 2005, in response to President George Bush's campaign for a democratic Middle East, Egyptians were allowed a shaft of political daylight when free elections were held. It was not secular parties that posted the biggest gains in the December polling but, rather, the Ikhwan, which won a quarter of the seats in Parliament. Its triumph was followed two months later by Hamas's election victory in Palestine. With that, Bush's romance with representative government in the Arab world ended. Emboldened, Mubarak administered a pasting of the Ikhwan in fidelity with a tradition of anti-Brotherhood crackdowns  that date back to the days of King Farouk. Since then, hundreds of Ikhwan members have been arrested and, it is widely presumed, tortured.
Mubarak cannot afford to neutralize the Ikhwan entirely, however. Islamism is the trump card he plays whenever foreigners call for a democratic Egypt and complain about the country's appalling human rights record. His message is clear: free and fair elections would install a fanatical Islamist government that would shred the country's peace treaty with Israel and, in league with Syria and Iran, open a third front against the Jewish state.
For Mubarak, Ikhwan-baiting is as lucrative as it is cynical. While dissident members have broken off to form radical cells--including Al Qaeda--there is no credible evidence linking the group to terrorist activity over the last half century. "I am convinced they are democratic and nonviolent, and I criticize those who have doubts," says Diaa Rashwan, a terrorist expert at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
In addition, estimates of the Ikhwan's electoral prospects have been revised downward since the 2005 ballot  and the government's draconian response. (Ikhwan leaders didn't help themselves by issuing an edict last year that would restrict women and Christians from running for president.) Even the group's senior members say it would be self-destructive to mount a presidential bid in isolation of other parties should Mubarak ever loosen his monopoly on power.
"We want a coalition," says Abdel Monem Abou El-Fotouh , an Ikhwan leader and head of Egypt's medical union. "If there was a free and fair election, we might get 70 percent of the vote. But as democracy goes on and Egypt gets an independent judiciary, freedom of expression, freedom for women and so forth, that ratio would not be sustainable or desirable. In a free society, we need independent groups to become participants in power."
The US Congress is having none of this, of course. Last fall a prominent Egyptian dissident met with politicians and policy-makers in Washington and appealed to them to support a democratic Egypt. He spent a week in New York and Washington, and he was struck by the American obsession with, and ignorance of, the Ikhwan.
"It was all they wanted to talk about," said the dissident, who asked that I not quote him. "Many of them were sure that this was a terrorist organization that would start a war with Israel were it not for Hosni Mubarak. They would not accept that the Ikhwan is a moderate organization and that we should work with them."
The man who would be pharaoh, 45-year-old Gamal Mubarak , has been at the vortex of Egyptian politics since 2002, when his father placed him at the head of the Policy Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Over the next two years, Gamal refreshed a political establishment of hacks and hangers-on, with free-market enthusiasts lavishly praised by the World Bank. The Egyptian economy is one of the strongest performers among developing nations, yet the dividends have yet to reach the country's evaporating middle class. The gap between the top and bottom wage earners, meanwhile, has expanded ominously.
But Gamal Mubarak, who worked as an investment banker in London before returning to Cairo in 2000, is burdened not so much by high-level graft or income disparity--both drearily common in Egypt--as by a lack of depth. "He's lived all his life in the royal court and at the republican palace," says Osama Harb, a political commentator and former Gamal ally. "He has no meetings with working people, no sense of real life. Yet he believes he has a right to succeed his father."
In 2005, President Mubarak amended Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution  to allow multiple candidates to vie for the presidency, a move that many analysts interpreted as a prelude to a bid  by Gamal amid a field of strong contenders from the NDP-controlled People's Assembly. In this way, say critics, the Mubaraks could have their dynastic succession packaged as a democratic process.
Such a maneuver would still require sanction from the military, however. It is important to remember that in Egypt, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Arab world, politics is very much an ad hoc affair. In Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, new leaders are bred through the monarchy. In Syria, it's done through the Alawis. Egypt has no system for renewal; it has a host of competing constituencies (Arabs, Africans, Islamists, Copts, secularists, the lower coastal dwellers and the upper inlanders) but no institution to emulsify them. Gamal is a political orphan who lacks the influence and authenticity that could sustain a dynastic transfer of authority. So it will likely be the military, not Gamal Mubarak, that fills the void.
In 2007, with Gamal entrenched as the NDP's power center, the president felt obliged to sit down with army leaders and reassure them that he would remain in power indefinitely. For good measure, the meeting was reported in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper. Without an understanding between President Mubarak and the military regarding the transition, analysts warn, Gamal could be dangerously exposed should his father die before naming a successor. Some suggest an interim junta might be formed. Or Gamal may become a titular prime minister with a military cabal calling the shots and Omar Suleiman, the head of state security, as chamberlain.
It is pleasant to believe the sheer weight of Egypt's cultural and political centrality will, like ballast in the hull of a ship, right the country through an uncertain transition. But Egyptians, a people of irrepressible good humor, are these days known for somber refrains.
"We need a genuine constitution," Harb, the political commentator, told me. "We need a multiparty political system, a free press, a free society. We need real NGOs that are not intimidated by the government, and we need to abolish the security state. Only then can Egypt be reborn." Otherwise, said Harb, "there will be general chaos. The army will be in the streets."