CAIRO-- It's a taboo subject in Egypt, one that can get you arrested simply for mentioning. But speculation over the health of the country's 81-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, is a popular Cairo parlor game. And on the eve of Barack Obama's visit here, it again hangs in the air like smoke in a shisha cafe.

In a prelude to his Cairo visit, Barack Obama had planned to host Hosni Mubarak at the White House late last month. Mubarak's annual Washington visits are a long-running tradition, but after his 12-year-old grandson's death days before the scheduled trip, the Egyptian ruler cancelled his visit. Oddly, however, although Mubarak was expected to attend the boy's funeral, the mourning president was a no-show, with no reason given. One strain of thought holds that Mubarak wasn't well enough to attend the funeral. But a more colorful (if admittedly far-fetched) interpretation related to me by one local journalist is that the young boy's death itself was faked--an elaborate excuse to provide cover for Mubarak's supposed physical inability to travel abroad.

Either way, it's yet another excuse for everyone to discuss the long-running question of what comes after Mubarak, who has held power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. That's not wholly clear, although Hosni's 46-year-old son, Gamal, a Westernized bachelor late-marrier, is the presumed successor. Journalists more experienced in Egypt than I say they will be watching two things closely on Thursday: One, how does Hosni look? And two, what role will Gamal have? A publicized meeting between Obama and the younger Mubarak would say quite a lot about the White House's preferences. 

Update: In 2007 Gamal landed a fetching bride in her mid-20s.

--Michael Crowley

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