CAIRO - Hosni Mubarak's move from jail to a Cairo military hospital where officials said he was slipping in and out of a coma on Wednesday created fresh uncertainty for Egyptians as officials delayed the announcement of a presidential election result.
Claims of fraud from both camps fuelled unease in a nation where rigged ballots were the norm under Mubarak and where his fellow generals have moved to curb the power of the new head of state. Now that results will not be announced on Thursday, clarity may not emerge until a full week after polling ended.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohamed Morsy claimed victory on Monday, threatened to take to the streets if Ahmed Shafik, a former general and Mubarak ally, was declared the winner. However, a leading Islamist told Reuters there would be no violence of the sort that devastated Algeria in the 1990s.
And the Shafik camp, while insisting its data meant it was also confident of victory, called for unity, saying its candidate would offer senior posts to the Brotherhood and, if he lost, would accept defeat and be willing to serve under Morsy.
Exactly what ails Mubarak, 84, who ruled for 30 years till last year, is unclear, but two security sources and one of his defense lawyers described his condition as "almost stable" or "on the way to stability" in an intensive care suite, with doctors occasionally using a ventilator to help him breathe.
Though now a convict serving a life sentence, Mubarak was being treated in one of Egypt's best-equipped facilities in a leafy suburb by the Nile. It has prompted some Egyptians to suspect a ruse, engineered by the military officers who have replaced him, to get their fallen leader out from behind bars.
Mubarak's health has been a subject of intense speculation since he was jailed for life on June 2, casting a shadow over the political transition and reminding the nation that, 16 months after his fall, few questions have been answered about where Egypt is heading and whether democracy will take root.
Whoever is declared winner, the next president's powers have already been curbed in a last-minute decree issued by the army after it ordered the Islamist-led parliament dissolved.
Reflecting the multiple levels of uncertainty, newspaper headlines pondering the outcome of the presidential vote vied with those reporting the unclear status of the former president's health after his transfer on Tuesday from the Tora prison clinic to the Maadi military hospital.
"Mubarak in a coma between life and death," wrote Al-Akhbar newspaper, below a headline on the row between Morsy and Shafik over who won: "Future president in the realm of the unknown."
Brotherhood supporters and others staged a protest on Tuesday against the army's decree to limit the president's role and retain powers. A movement official Osama Yassin said on Wednesday he was calling on supporters to set up open-ended vigils in town squares across the nation to make their demands.
"We reject the overturning of the popular will," he said.
But Saad al-Katatni, speaker of the short-lived democratic parliament dissolved by the ruling military council last week, said the Brotherhood would not fight back with violence in the way Algerian Islamists did after the army there cancelled a vote they had won in 1992, touching off a decade of bloody civil war.
"We are fighting a legal struggle via ... a popular struggle in the streets," Katatni said. "This is the ceiling. I see the continuation of the struggle in this way," he told Reuters in the first interview since the dissolution.
Prolonged anxiety has wearied many Egyptians who were elated when Mubarak fell. It has also taken a toll on the economy. This week, share prices have lost nearly 8 percent while the pound touched a seven-year low against the dollar on Wednesday, prompting speculation on future action to curb currency flows.
One of Mubarak's defense lawyers, Mohamed Abdel Razek, described the former president's condition as "almost stable" and blamed poor treatment at the prison hospital for his health crisis.
"The president still goes in and out of comas and had a stroke and all of this requires a hospital with special medical equipment that would be able to treat his condition," he said.
That description was broadly echoed by two security sources.
Egyptians have been dubious of the fuss over Mubarak's health. Some protested when he was not sentenced to death. Many suspect his fellow generals, who pushed him aside to appease the protesters, of arranging a more agreeable confinement for him, in conditions beyond the dreams of most of his fellow citizens.
During his 10-month trial, he appeared prone on a hospital stretcher, routinely flown in by helicopter from another plush military hospital, on Cairo's desert outskirts.
Mubarak's legal team had been pressing to have him moved from the prison hospital to a better-equipped facility. However, prison authorities previously refused to let him go.
Onlookers gathered outside the whitewashed Maadi hospital building, set in pleasant gardens.
Some of those congregating outside were curious bystanders who heard a famous patient was inside, others were there to show support. One held a poster of Mubarak, resplendent in ceremonial uniform, with the caption: "History will be the judge."
"Mubarak has been dead since his people sentenced him to prison and threw him in Tora," said Loola Yamany, 50. "His people wronged him and did not give him his rights," she added.
There has been no clear statement from independent medical experts on what ails Mubarak, though state media have reported a variety of illnesses from shortage of breath to heart attacks.
A state news agency report on Tuesday that he was "clinically dead", a condition normally defined by the lack of a heartbeat and breathing and one from which patients can be revived, was followed by swift denials from military sources.
It was unclear whether at any point he reached that stage, though some sources did say he was dependent on life support.
Noting that without heart, lung or even brain function, machines can keep the body alive, Peter Openshaw, a consultant in respiratory medicine at St Mary's Hospital in London, said: "If they wished to keep him alive, with modern techniques and a good hospital, you could technically say that he is alive if you had him on completely artificial heart and lung support.
"Under conditions where doctors are doing absolutely everything they can to keep you going, it's actually quite hard to die."
For most Egyptians, the identity of their next president was a more pressing concern than the fate of their last.
"The news about Mubarak's health is all speculation. We should depend on reality. We can't keep following rumors," said Maher Eid Hemdan, a 59-year-old pensioner, in central Cairo.
"As for the elections, may the best man win."