The Mexican standoff on the Nile intensified today. While President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday that he would not seek re-election but stay on until September to supervise the political transition, protesters in Tahrir Square demanded yet again that he step down now.
“I watched Hosni Mubarak’s speech and immediately headed back to Tahrir Square,” said Basem Fathy, a protester with the Egyptian Democratic Academy, a pro-democracy group. “We are not going to leave until he does.”
After the embattled Egyptian president spoke, President Obama told a White House press conference that, based on his 30-minute telephone conversation with Mubarak soon after his speech, Mubarak seemed to recognize that the status quo was not “sustainable” and that to be meaningful, “an orderly transition must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
But longtime Egypt watchers said that despite the $1.5 billion a year that Washington gives Egypt, they doubted that America’s advice or desires would be dispositive in Mubarak’s decisions about the struggle under way for Egypt’s political future.
While Mubarak made a major concession Tuesday night by announcing that he would not run for a sixth term as president, he seems to have doubled down on his bet that he can outlast the protesters’ fury and stay in office until the fall. In this second speech since Egypt’s popular uprising began a week ago, Mubarak declared that he had worked all of his life for his country and was determined to “die on Egyptian soil.”
Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt now at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School who knows Mubarak well, said that dignity was paramount for the former air force officer-turned president. “The 21-gun salute and a sail-off on a yacht as there was for Farouk is not for him," said Kurtzer, referring to the humiliating exile of the king who was deposed by military officers in 1952.
Tarek Heggy, a human rights activist and writer who has close friends in the regime, said Mubarak would not step down easily: “He is very stubborn. His capacity to change is very limited.”
Several analysts said that the longer Mubarak hangs on, the less plausible Omar Suleiman seems as the overseer of political reform and a transition to freer, fairer elections in Egypt. Heggy said that the standing of Suleiman, the well-respected intelligence chief whom Mubarak named as his vice president, late last week, was being compromised "with every passing day.”
"Mubarak’s concession not to run again “has only emboldened the crowd,” said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official in the Bush administration and now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. “This, in turn, risks making Suleiman, who was initially acceptable as a compromise transition overseer, also unacceptable.”
Because Suleiman is regarded as very competent, not corrupt, and lacking in personal political ambition, he was initially seen as potentially acceptable to many protesters and the military. Now 74 years old — a spring chicken compared to the Mubarak, who is 82 and ailing — Suleiman has handled two of the regime’s most sensitive portfolios: Egypt’s relations with Israel and its counterterrorism initiatives.
In secret diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks, a U.S. ambassador described Suleiman as a "rock-solid" loyalist to Mubarak who felt that fighting terrorism and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict were the keys to Egyptian stability and that of the region.
His suspicion of Iran and determination to work with the U.S. to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons have also endeared him to American officials, who have long considered the presidential succession issue the “elephant in the room of Egyptian politics,” wrote then Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr.
Suleiman is also trusted by Mubarak, perhaps because he is credited with having saved his life in 1995 by insisting that Mubarak’s armored Mercedes-Benz be flown to Ethiopia for his state visit there, according to Foreign Policy magazine. When gun-toting terrorists attacked the convoy, Mubarak escaped unharmed, thanks to his armored car.
Mubarak’s political fate could be determined in the next two-to-three days by two elements: whether Egypt’s military and security elite continue to support him, and whether the pro-democracy protesters who have filled Egypt’s town squares and streets for the past week can sustain their momentum.
There are some indications that the military’s support for Mubarak’s refusal to step down might be softening.
Fear is now widespread that the demonstrations that have been relatively peaceful may turn violent. Many Egyptians are also furious about the thousands of prisoners who either escaped or were released from jails throughout Egypt who have been robbing, looting, and causing havoc throughout the country.
Several activists and analysts have heard rumors that the regime may try to stage pro-Mubarak rallies soon to challenge and deflate the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of all political stripes and classes who turned out today to demand Mubarak’s resignation. Such competing rallies could easily turn violent, despite the military’s pledge not to shoot protesters.
Bassem Fathy said that the protesters would have to remain united if they were to get rid of Mubarak — a huge challenge given the movement’s lack of organic leadership and the nature of the pro-democracy movement.
The desire for unity and the lack of obvious leaders has enabled Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to present himself as a unifier of a movement whose members range from tiny non-governmental organizations to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group which favors Islamic law and is hostile to Egypt’s peace with Israel.
Since his latest arrival in Cairo on Thursday from Vienna, where he has a home, ElBaradei has assumed a key role in formulating the movement's demands. He is also on a new committee formed by numerous factions to conduct negotiations on the protesters' behalf if and when Mubarak resigns. It was ElBaradei who said no to President Mubarak’s most recent offer for “dialogue,” a rejection that Mubarak cited scornfully in his speech Tuesday night.
The Obama administration has tried to walk a fine line between supporting protesters’ demands for freedom and positioning itself “on the right side of history,” as one senior diplomat put it, and not unceremoniously dumping a leader who has supported American policy on key policies — the search for Arab-Israeli peace, counterterrorism, and the effort to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.
Toward that end, President Obama sent Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt who is well-liked by Mubarak, to urge him gently, but firmly to renounce a sixth term as president.
Yet America’s influence in the drama unfolding on the Nile is probably limited. Despite spending roughly $2 billion a year on military and economic assistance to Cairo, Washington is likely to be unable to dictate either Mubarak’s decision about when to leave office, or how far to go in meeting protesters’ demands. Such issues will be shaped far more by Egyptian domestic considerations.
The same can be said for the protesters, for whom the United States seems to be a marginal issue in their quarrels with the government. “This is an Egyptian struggle, an Egyptian phenomenon,” Fathy said.
Analysts and activists alike predict that the next two to three days could be critical for the protesters and the revolt that was triggered by mass protests last month that led to the resignation and exile of Tunisia’s president in less than a month. In such a volatile atmosphere, anything could happen.
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