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Zambia leader's health sparks power struggle

President Levy Mwanawasa – a key Mugabe critic – is recovering from a June 29 stroke.

'Stable': President Levy Mwanawasa (seen here in an earlier photo) suffered a stroke in Egypt last month.

Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

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What happens when a country hasn't heard from its president in a month?

That's the question Zambians are asking in the curious case of Levy Patrick Mwanawasa.

Mr. Mwanawasa, who has served as president of this peaceful but poor southern African nation since 2001, suffered a stroke on June 29 while attending an African Union summit in Egypt. He underwent surgery and was subsequently rushed to a French military hospital in Paris amid rumors that he had died.

The Zambian government says the ailing Mwanawasa, who remains in the French hospital, is "stable" and very much alive. But there have been no photos, TV footage, or audio recordings, and many Zambians fear the worst. The stroke was Mwanawasa's second in less than three years, and the former attorney's health has often fueled speculation.

Even as Zambians hope for Mwanawasa's recovery, his condition has set up the beginnings of a power struggle in Zambia's ruling party and could pose a key test for a young democracy that has never lost a head of state to death or illness.

"It will be a big test, because it's the first time it's ever happened in this country," notes Neo Simutanyi, a political analyst who runs the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Zambian think tank. Mr. Simutanyi says that the government should give the Zambian people more information on the president's condition.

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