An odd article ran a week ago in al-Shuruq, one of Egypt's daily newspapers. Headlined simply "Who is Running Egypt in Mubarak's Absence?!" the article examined the constitutional situation in light of President Husni Mubarak's hospitalization in Germany. The article suggested that the country appears to be run by an absent president, a technocratic prime minister, a few leading politicians, and a collection of men behind a curtain.

This is new. For all its faults, Egypt's political system generally makes clear who is in charge. The entire political order is carefully structured to have all lines of authority run to the president. As Mubarak has aged, however, his visible involvement in Egyptian politics has decreased, leading Egyptians to swap rumors about who is really running the country. Is it the security apparatus? His son? High members of the National Democratic Party? What is the role of his wife, a visible figure in Egyptian public life? Most important of all, who will follow him? Mubarak's illness has catapulted these questions from the rumor mill to the headlines. But it has not answered them.

Aside from its overenthusiastic punctuation, the al-Shuruq article calmly reported that Husni Mubarak had deputized Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif to take on day-to-day presidential responsibilities. But Nazif is no Alexander Haig asserting that he is in control. If there is an Egyptian Haig, he is not in sight. The article made clear that Nazif's authority is limited and that in important matters (such as those related to security) he consults with named and unnamed responsible authorities. The article offered only brief speculation on how much Mubarak is in contact with Egyptian officials and whom he is speaking with. In short, there was no good answer to the question posed by the headline or even if there is an answer.

While it is not clear who wields power -- or who will run things if Mubarak's absence becomes permanent -- it is clearer how that power is being wielded. There are, to be sure, some signs of disarray, of different institutions and power centers pulling in different directions. But that disarray only goes so far. The overall direction is clear: Egypt is now in the midst of an uneven political clampdown. 

Opposition parties are allowed to operate -- as long as they are weak, fractious, and stay off the streets and in the salons where they belong. Real opposition movements are contained and sometimes harshly suppressed. Wildcat strikers and demonstrators can be treated roughly indeed. And the Muslim Brotherhood -- essentially a middle-class religious reform movement with an ability to mobilize thousands of followers throughout the country -- has provoked a prolonged security campaign ever since it won one-fifth of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. The Brotherhood was not so foolish as to try to win those elections -- its leaders say that under current circumstances, they would never seek more than one-third of the seats and they generally compete for far less. But the movement's strong showing in 2005 reached too far. A wide swath of Brotherhood leaders have been hauled in for a variety of charges, some of them quite implausible. At present, the movement's top body, the Guidance Bureau, is almost as able to hold meetings in prison as in its cramped Cairo headquarters: six of its 17 members in custody. The movement's foot soldiers have been arrested in much larger numbers.

In a recent piece for the Carnegie Endowment ("Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment"), Amr Hamzawy and I argue that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been forced into a relative retreat from politics. The Brotherhood will not abandon the political sphere, but it is likely to concentrate far more on its own organizational health, as well as other areas of activity (such as charitable work and education). And in a visit to Egypt last week, I got hard evidence that the Brotherhood is in defensive and reactive mood: every time I asked a leader a question about what the movement's plans were, I received an answer only in terms of what the increasingly repressive regime would not allow. It seemed that even in their eyes, it is not a matter of what the movement does but only what is done to it.

The Egyptian Brotherhood is not going to transform itself into a revolutionary organization as a response: it is too set in its ways, cautious in its decision making, stodgy in its leadership, and committed to living down the damage to its reputation for past dalliances in the 1940s and 1950s with political violence. But its peaceful political efforts have few achievements to show (they have been able to sketch out a fairly comprehensive vision but not implement any of it). And the Brotherhood is increasingly dominated by leaders who prioritize politics less and show fewer political skills. Even one of the advocates and architects of its plunge into politics -- ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Futuh -- recently floated the idea of a 20-year time out from parliament and national elections.

This is a loss -- and not because the Brotherhood's vision is so laudable. It has evolved, but it still provokes some suspicions. Some within the movement have worked hard to meld traditional religious themes with liberal political values. Their success is real but incomplete. The real loss, therefore, is not that the Brotherhood's vision will not be realized. Instead it is to be found in the maintenance of a stultifying political environment. The Brotherhood's leaders are the only opposition force in the country that can both articulate a vision and strategy and speak for a broad constituency. Without such Islamist participation, the Egyptian regime will be facing an opposition of inchoate protests and armchair intellectuals. This makes any positive political change unlikely. In fact, the more bashful Brotherhood will actually be useful to the regime -- it does not threaten but it does serve as a bogeyman to scare liberals and Western governments.

The specter of Muhammad ElBaradei's possible presidential candidacy actually accentuates all these developments. On the one hand, it is constitutionally nearly impossible for him to run (should Mubarak not run, the rules are stacked very heavily in favor of his son Gamal), as ElBaradei himself recognizes. And the set of constitutional reforms ElBaradei calls for is the same package of political liberalization that all opposition movements, from the Brotherhood to the Marxists, have been developing for more than two decades. ElBaradei represents less the real prospect for change and more the dream. If that dream ever materialized, then it is not likely that ElBaradei could satisfy everyone now flirting with support for him -- everybody from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Washington Post.

But that is not the point. The ElBaradei phenomenon is still significant and should be alarming to the regime. This is not because he is a viable presidential candidate under Egypt's closed system. Instead it is because only a regime without much credibility or legitimacy could be spooked by an international civil servant long absent from the country.

To say that Egypt is adrift is not to say its regime is unstable. Its current system does not inspire respect or affection, but it does quite effectively present itself as inevitable. It is as legitimate as gravity. In Egypt, the leadership's sense of raison d'état remains robust indeed, the problem is that its raison d'être is evaporating.