, CAIRO, Mar 6 – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has handed over the reins of government to Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif while he undergoes surgery for gall bladder removal in Germany, state media reported on Saturday.
State television which broke the news in the early hours of Saturday said Mubarak, 81, issued a decree giving Nazif executive power until he returns to Cairo.
The surgery was scheduled to take place on Saturday in Heidelberg University hospital, television said in rare public comment on the health of the president.
Mubarak, it added, suffered "gall bladder pain" while in Germany for talks on Thursday with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It said the president was accompanied by his wife Suzanne Mubarak and members of his family.
The official news agency MENA said Mubarak underwent tests on Friday that confirmed "chronic infections in the gall bladder."
Gall bladder removal is a benign operation but the last minute announcement of the surgery raised questions.
"Yesterday, they announced he would undergo an examination. Then they announced he would undergo a surgery. They should have announced this earlier," said political analyst Imad Gad.
The way the government handled the treatment "fuels speculation that there are other reasons for the surgery," Gad told AFP.
The most frequent technique, laparascopic cholecystectomy, is performed under anaesthesia and involves the insertion of a tiny camera through several tiny incisions in the torso.
This technique makes a faster recovery, and the patient can leave hospital in 48 to 72 hours.
A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in August 2005 found that surgery increases the risk of developing colon cancer.
Mubarak\’s health is usually a taboo subject in the country he has ruled since 1981, fuelling regular rumours on the subject.
In 2007, speculation snowballed to the extent that the president was forced to make an unscheduled public appearance to put the rumours to rest.
A year later, Ibrahim Eissa, editor in chief of the independent daily Al-Dustur, was sentenced to two months in prison for writing about Mubarak\’s health. He later received a presidential pardon.
But the government says it has been transparent on the president\’s ailment and surgery, although it had not given any indication before he left for Germany that he would undergo a check up and an operation.
Prime Minister Nazif\’s spokesman Magdy Rady said the decision to undergo surgery was taken only on Friday after what he said was a "follow up" with German doctors.
"Yesterday they decided he needs an operation. If he had known there would be a surgery a month ago, he would have gone a month ago," Radi told AFP.
This is not the first time Mubarak has handed over the reins of government. In 2004 he delegated executive powers to then prime minister Atef Ebeid when he sought treatment in Germany for a slipped disc.
Mubarak had been active in the months before his latest visit to Germany, giving speeches and touring provinces although last year he cancelled a scheduled trip to Washington and limited public appearances after the death of his 12-year-old grandson.
Mubarak\’s fifth six-year term as president will end in 2011 and press reports in Egypt have suggested that his son Gamal is likely to succeed him.
Neither Mubarak nor his son however has made any clear statement on the matter.
On Thursday, Mubarak said that Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has called for democratic reform in Egypt, could run for the presidency provided he respected the constitution.
ElBaradei has said he would run for president if the constitution, which places obstacles before presidential candidates, was amended. He visited Egypt last month to form an opposition group.