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Mubarak’s Malingering Leaves Egypt at a Dangerous Crossroads

9 minute read
Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians erupted in angry protest on Thursday night, painfully disappointed after hours of massing in Tahrir Square in celebratory expectation. Famous singers, news anchors and religious sheiks had appeared before the crowd to urge on the hope that President Hosni Mubarak would resign. Parents and children, the elderly, the middle aged, the young and a cross section of political affiliations danced and sang along to nationalist songs. A couple even celebrated their wedding on one of the square’s makeshift stages. But the joy was premature.

When President Hosni Mubarak finally spoke, it was not at all what they expected. “He’s laughing at the people. He’s still laughing at us,” Shams Hilal, 27, an Egyptian journalist, said, spitting on the ground in Tahrir Square. “He wants to see the country destroyed.” “You arrogant fool,” one woman cried at the President’s image projected on a large sheet of cloth. “May your house burn,” shouted another. And the chants of “Fall, fall, down with Mubarak” rippled through the crowd with a new and furious intensity.

(Watch TIME’s video “In Tahrir Square, Strong Reaction to Mubarak’s Speech.”)

That anger is being channeled into a march on the presidential palace on Friday. Given the positioning of the presidential guard and the army around the presidential palace, some fear that it could lead to another round of bloody clashes. Mubarak’s previous address to the nation preceded a day of violence, when armed regime loyalists and hired thugs attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square. On Thursday night after the speech, a small, angry protest gathered in front of the line of tanks outside the state-television building. Others bedded down for another night in Tahrir. Many, many others vowed to keep going until “the idiot” — their President — gets the message.

(See pictures of a confrontation at Tahrir Square.)

Mubarak may have, in fact, flubbed the message. In his legalistic, rambling speech, Mubarak did not make it anywhere near clear to the world, much less the hundreds of thousands of his countrymen in Tahrir Square, that he was ceding much of anything. He mentioned delegating powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman but not what those powers would be. Indeed, the only things certain were that he was bent on preserving his dignity and that he would not leave office until a new President is elected in September. Matters were not helped when Suleiman appeared on television for his own speech shortly afterward and basically told the protesters to go home.

Later, interlocutors, including the Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. who spoke on CNN, tried to explain that what had happened was a constitutional transfer of authority by Mubarak to Suleiman and that Mubarak was now only President in name only and Suleiman wielded the full powers of the office. But by then the damage was done and the crowd was furious.

(Read “The Suleiman Problem: Egypt’s Transitional Figure Won’t Transition.”)

The White House was not impressed by Mubarak’s speech. On Thursday night in the U.S., it released a stern, written statement that declared, “The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient. Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.”

Mubarak’s inability to speak clearly reflects the degradation of democracy in Egypt during his decades in power. So much legal, indeed constitutional, change is personally dependent on the President, from dissolving parliament and the government to amending the national charter itself. The succession issue is fraught because of it. For years, Mubarak had no Vice President to delegate any of his powers to and was, in fact, only forced to pick one after the demonstrations started on Jan. 25. And, in one constitutional scenario, a presidential election would have been required within 60 days of him leaving office — a precipitous situation no one in Egypt today wants. As for the parliament, which has an important role in any succession, it cannot meet because it does not have a quorum. The results of the last legislative elections, at the end of 2010, were so widely considered fraudulent that more than 184 seats out of 508 are being contested in lawsuits. Thus, an orderly transition required Mubarak to speak precisely. If that was what he was trying to do on Thursday night, he failed miserably.

That was more so because everyone expected him to get out of the way and leave the scene. The secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party, as well as other government sources, indicated earlier in the day that a transfer of power was imminent. But Mubarak’s words only served to rile the crowd. “The speech was a disaster,” says Wahid Fawzy, an official in the opposition Ghed party. “I know they’re angry and I don’t know what they’re going to do. And that anger isn’t only in Tahrir.”

(See TIME’s exclusive pictures of the clashes in Cairo.)

“The arrogance, my God,” Fawzy says of the speech. Like many others, he marveled at how a country could have been led to believe that it was awaiting the moment of truth, only to be confronted with a bold, defiant speech from a leader who offered few concessions. “As usual, too little, too late,” Fawzy says.

The question now is where does the army stand? The Egyptian military seems to be as blindsided by Mubarak as everyone else. Earlier in the day, Major General Hassan Roweny told tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square, “Everything you want will be realized.” Says Paul Sullivan of the National Defense University, an expert: “There were some serious communications disconnects somewhere along the line. Maybe President Mubarak saw handing over some of his powers to Suleiman as a sort of stepping down without causing a vacuum from his perspective. Maybe he did not tell but his closest people exactly what he was going to say.”

Fawzy and other opposition members fear that the bristling anger in the streets could lead to another violent confrontation — this time with the army, which until now has held to a pact of nonviolence with the people. One observer sees a Machiavellian rationale behind Mubarak’s rambling talk about staying on — to stoke public anger to irrational levels. Says Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military now at the Naval Postgraduate School: “They have to convert these people into a disorderly mob as opposed to an orderly protest — that’s their intent. And at the same there is no suggestion whatsoever, despite their good words, that the arrests of protesters have stopped, so they are continuing to squeeze. They want to raise the temperature, they want to justify the intervention of the military and tell the world and Egyptians that, well, if [the crackdown] does not happen, the country will go to chaos.”

But by doing so, the military will bloody its hands and ruin its reputation with the people, who by and large still hold the institution in high esteem, and endanger the $1.3 billion in aid it receives from the U.S. Owen Sirrs, a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, says, “The reverence that people hold for the army is something that the army doesn’t want to sacrifice. They just like to be seen as the repository of the country’s honor.” He adds, “I still don’t see the army stepping and knocking heads because the deal that Mubarak has made with the army is that, yeah, show yourself in the streets, but the red line that they can’t cross would be the one where they open firing on the demonstrators.”

Additionally, says Sirrs, “I can imagine that when [Defense Minister Mohammed] Tantawi sits down with Mubarak and they talk about loyalty of key units in the Cairo area — there are two big divisions — they’ve got to be wondering about the loyalty of the troops further down [the chain of command]. Because obviously the Central Security Forces — the police units — are not capable of doing the job [of suppressing the protesters]. And there might be some serious questions in the army leadership as to whether they could actually rely on the conscripts to do the job. Maybe they don’t want to push it that far.”

And so the army, too, is at a crossroads. Stand by Mubarak and shoot at an angry mob? Or allow people power to push the President — perhaps literally — out of power? Or to stage a coup? Ahmed Fattouh, an Egyptian-American businessman, says that before Mubarak spoke, “I was surprised to find a vibe that if the military took over that would be acceptable as an interim solution, and maybe even with Omar Suleiman at helm. But now the people are incensed.” Says Fawzy: “The army and the people are far apart now. If [the protesters] want to go to the presidential palace now or burn something, they are not violent, but they’re being pushed. And if the army shoots once, the camaraderie is not going to last. That scares me.”

— With reporting by Michael Scherer / Washington and Ken Stier / New York City

See pictures of a night in Tahrir Square.

Read “Mubarak Reveals a Brutal Plan to Hold Power.”

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