(CNN) -- Most Egyptians have known no president but Hosni Mubarak. In fact, one-third of them were born after Mubarak had already been in power for 15 years. Now, very suddenly, the people of Egypt are asking who might replace the man often dubbed Egypt's last pharaoh.
There are no obvious answers. And the pharaoh himself, now 82 years old, shows no sign of going quietly.
Mubarak has not had a vice president since he came to power in 1981, and has been quick to neutralize any challenge to his power from within. His ministers have been largely technocrats without a political base of their own. For almost 10 years, the chatter among the Egyptian elite has been about a "dynastic transition" to Mubarak's younger son, Gamal -- a long tradition in the Arab world.
U.S. diplomatic cables sent from the Cairo embassy since 2006 and published by WikiLeaks have often been preoccupied with the succession. Five years ago, one cable observed that Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, was their son's "most ardent booster" but added: "The possibility that Gamal might succeed his father remains deeply unpopular on the street."
Most notably, the cable noted that "unlike his father, (Gamal) cannot take the military's support for granted," having never served as an officer.
Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations -- who was in Cairo until Thursday -- says the protests mean "we can dismiss the possibility of Gamal Mubarak" succeeding his father. The Mubarak name is now tarnished beyond repair.
Elliott Abrams, also with the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees, posting on his blog that the protests "make it impossible that the son should succeed the father. Efforts to cram him into that position would give rise to public discontent far greater than we are seeing already."
Demonstrators in several cities in Egypt Friday tore down posters of Gamal Mubarak.
But if not the son, then who? A U.S. cable from Ambassador Margaret Scobey in 2009 lamented the lack of obvious contenders, saying Mubarak "has no single confidante or advisor who can truly speak for him, and he has prevented any of his main advisors from operating outside their strictly circumscribed spheres of power."
Thomas P. Barnett of forecasting group Wikistrat put it more colorfully: "Let me give you the four scariest words I can't pronounce in Arabic: Egypt after Hosni Mubarak."
The man at the center of a nascent opposition movement is Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and former secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Last year, he returned to Cairo and formed the National Association for Change, entertaining even then that he might run for president. After a long career at the United Nations, ElBaradei is the consummate diplomat and negotiator, but some commentators ask whether he has the street instincts to deal with the rough and tumble of a volatile, fast-moving popular uprising.
Some Egyptian opposition activists have also been critical of ElBaradei's late arrival on the scene (he landed in Cairo Thursday evening and there were few supporters at the airport to greet him), and his frequent absences overseas since launching his group. On the other hand, he has won plaudits for boycotting last year's parliamentary election, which turned out to be tainted by widespread fraud. And Friday, he showed he was ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with protestors.
Another prominent Egyptian not currently associated with the government is Arab League Secretary-General Amer Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister. At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, he acknowledged that "the Arab citizen is angry, is frustrated. That is the point. So the name of the game is reform." But he has shown no public interest in being involved in the process and would have to give up his current post to return to the fray of Egyptian politics.
The most widespread opposition movement, through mosques, education and welfare programs, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned but tolerated within strict limits. It is no surprise that leaders of the Brotherhood were among the first political figures to be detained.
But years of harassment and detention have hollowed out the Brotherhood as a political force. It has not been in the vanguard of these protests and the consensus among commentators is that the Egyptian military would not tolerate the Brotherhood in power.
In any event, says Barnett -- formerly a professor at the U.S. Navy War College -- events in Egypt and Tunisia show that the "Islamist narrative" to explain the woes of the Arab world is being challenged by a maturing and well-educated youth movement whose expectations of a better life have been dashed by economic stagnation and a stifling political atmosphere.
Amr Hamzawy, research director and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, notes in an article for the Los Angeles Times: "While the Muslim Brotherhood youth and some of their leaders participated in the protests, there were no signs saying, "Islam is the solution." Egyptians have grown accustomed to the same political forces and opposition personalities in the streets, but this fundamentally changed."
There is the possibility -- according to commentators in and beyond Egypt -- of the military acting as the "handmaiden" of any transition.
Cook of the CFR says the central question for the military command is whether and when it comes time to see Mubarak as a liability. Historically, the army is averse to "public order" duties, though it has moved in at time of crisis in the past (for example, helping to quell bread riots in 2008 -- by baking bread).
But Cook points out that the army chief of staff, Sami Annan, and others have been hand-picked by the president. Unlike Tunisia, where the military played a role in calling time on President Ben Ali, "the Egyptian army is organically tied to the regime," says Cook. And loyalty has always been a more important factor in promotion than competence, according to Egyptian analysts cited in U.S. diplomatic cables.
In the past, U.S. diplomats have discussed the possibility of Omar Suleiman, the head of the intelligence service for nearly 20 years, as a transitional leader. Now, the very public hostility to anyone close to Mubarak, and especially anyone attached to the security apparatus, may make that option less likely.
Barnett, chief analyst at Wikistrat, says Mubarak's best -- and perhaps only -- option may now be to announce an "exit date" to take the sting out of the protests, organize an orderly transition to fresh elections and hand authority to a caretaker Cabinet that could focus on growing the economy.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, takes a similar view: "President Mubarak has the opportunity to quell the unrest by guaranteeing that a free and open democratic process will be in place when the time comes to choose the country's next leader later this year."
Several observers say the United States' best hope is that Mubarak addresses the protestors' demands quickly and lays out a road map to real democracy.
As Cook puts it, "The idea that people could come together and oust a dictator has electrified the opposition. But this is a leaderless movement." And one thing Egypt-watchers agree upon: the speed of events, the sudden cry of "kifaya" -- "enough" -- in a country where politics has long been dormant makes prediction foolhardy.