Rumors that Hosni Mubarak had died swept through Egyptian discourse over the last ten days. Unable to squelch the rumors, the Egyptian regime had to resort to releasing (fairly unconvincing) pictures of an alive Mubarak and an interview with Mubarak denying the rumors, and then went on a propaganda offensive accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of spreading the rumors in order to foster instability (it later added Hamas and "Arab media" to the list of conspirators ... and, I kid you not, according to al-Ahram is opening an official investigation into the treatment of the rumors by the opposition press).
The best commentary I've yet seen comes from Egyptian columnist Hassan Nafaa, who argued that the incredibly rapid spread of the rumor and the tenor of private discussions about the possibility that it was true carried extremely important lessons about the current state of Egyptian politics. The power of the rumor mill testifies to the lack of credibility of the official media and of the government, since Egyptians clearly did not feel that they could trust the information on offer from those sources. This is not a new story of course, since Egypt's official media have been in a state of free-fall for quite a while. But as Abdullah al-Sanawi argues this is something quite extraordinary: journalists and citizens and politicians trying to find out if their own President was live were resorting to calling foreign ambassadors. As the official media offered statements devoid of any evidence, which people simply didn't trust, the story quickly spread to the Arab satellite television stations like al-Jazeera and from there to the foreign media - but they couldn't get any reliable information out of the regime either. All in all, the episode demonstrates the dangers of a regime's lost credibility and of a corroded official public sphere.
The other dimension is more substantively political. The intensity of concern about Mubarak's fate reflects the current state of political polarization, driven by the regime's confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the frustration of reform efforts after the fiasco of the Constitutional amendments, and the still inncomplete efforts to secure Gamal Mubarak's path to succeeding his father as President. The ambiguity surrounding the succession creates tremendous uncertainty: there is still no Vice President; according to Nafaa, Gamal has been increasingly behaving like an Acting President rather than a President in Waiting but hasn't yet shored up his support; nobody has a clue where the military really stands on the succession; and plenty of people are fanning the fears of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover if Mubarak goes.
This is precisely the sort of moment which political scientists studying political transitions look for - divided elites, unclear international environment, a powerful opposition movement positioning itself as a moderate alternative, widespread public discontent. Of course, that doesn't really tell us anything about what it might transition into - the teleology of 'transition to democracy' really doesn't hold up, I don't think. If Hosni Mubarak really has been incapacitated then we're going to be looking at an extremely tense transitional period, with the 'center' disappearing at the height of multiple political struggles. Even if he hasn't, the wildfire spread of the rumor and the tenor of the discussions suggest tremendous uncertainty about Egypt's political future.
UPDATE: I've just been informed that Ibrahim Eissa, the courageous editor of the independent weekly al-Dustour, has become the first journalist arrested on charges of spreading false rumors of Mubarak's death.