When Egypt's still-president Hosni Mubarak came to power following Anwar Sadat's assassination in an armed insurrection 30 years ago, he imposed a martial law that -- despite the euphemistic suggestions of its name, the "emergency law" -- has remained in effect ever since. As a result, Mubarak has been essentially unbound by law himself and, as Reuters' Jonathan Wright puts it, "perpetuated a system in which politics in the conventional sense hardly exists, running the country by administrative fiat as if it were an army or a corporation." But even armies and corporations need succession planning. And as Mary Anne Weaver saw, writing back in our October 2003 issue, Mubarak's strategic thinking on this front has been vague and tentative for a long time:

The question of succession in Egypt is a surprisingly open one, and the country's entire political future rests on it. An astonishing aspect of Hosni Mubarak's twenty-two-year rule--though it is little discussed outside the Middle East--is that he has never appointed a Vice President or anointed an heir, something that neither Sadat nor Nasser dared to neglect. His dilemma has always been whether to appoint a civilian or a military man. Now, finally, he seems to be grooming an heir in each camp: one a general, the other an entrepreneur; the first arguably his closest aide, the second his son.

Until not so long ago few Egyptians even knew who Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, Egypt's powerful chief of intelligence, was. Suleiman, sixty-seven, had moved quietly through the shadows for years. But then, curiously, the general began coming out. And his emergence was all the more curious because it coincided with the rise of Gamal Mubarak, the President's forty-year-old younger son. Suleiman, a member of Egypt's highest caste, the military, which considers itself destined to rule, came of age on the battlefields of the Arab-Israeli wars. He stands for law and order and stability. Gamal--only a child in 1967, when the most devastating of those wars occurred--came of age in his father's palaces and at the best of Egypt's universities and private clubs. He is meant to represent cautious economic and one-party political reform. Many consider Suleiman too old and Gamal too young; neither generates enthusiasm from the Egyptian intellectuals and professionals over whom he might rule. But the profile of each has risen dramatically in the past two and a half years, and the chattering classes are chattering, endlessly: Should Mubarak and his generals promote another soldier from within the regime? Should they join other leaders of the authoritarian Arab world in establishing the incongruous concept of a republican dynasty? Would the military countenance such a thing? Or is now the time to permit a free and fair election, with the probability that an outsider--almost certainly from the Muslim Brotherhood--will win? Should Mubarak anoint a son, a soldier, or a sheikh?

How these questions are answered will be critical not only for Egypt but also for the United States, and for the rest of the Arab world--a world in which what happens in Cairo, the region's geopolitical, cultural, and intellectual capital, has always been a harbinger of things to come.

Two days ago, Mubarak chose the soldier. Whether this decision ended up being anything more than a last-minute, tactical response to a rapid loss of control is an issue for historians to sort out. The question now is whether Mubarak's choice will mean anything at all after the coming months, or weeks, or even days -- and if it doesn't, what that will be a harbinger of for rest of the Arab world.

Read Weaver's full story here.