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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 18:24 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 18:24 | SYDNEY

Mubarak speaks, no-one listens

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11 February 2011 09:30

President Mubarak's much anticipated address to the nation on Thursday evening (Egypt time) did even less than people were expecting. He did not resign, he did not lift the emergency law or make major constitutional changes that would make September's presidential election genuinely free and fair (he only promised a process by which this might be undertaken). It was not even clear how much power he was transferring to his Vice-President, Omar Suleiman.

There are three explanations for this characteristic, but still remarkable, display of stubbornness, and in fact elements of all three combined may explain what is occurring:

  1. The President and those in the regime still loyal to him, including Vice-President Suleiman, are truly deluded. It is amazing to think that this group really might believe that the President's 'concessions' would get people off the streets. But, given how the regime has repeatedly misread the protests to date, this is a plausible explanation.
  2. The regime is preparing for something really ugly. There have been increasing reports that the army (not just the police or state security) has been brutalizing protesters, which is undermining the popular image of the military as neutral. Much depends now on the interpretation of the military high command's move hours before Mubarak's speech. It issued a very ambiguous statement titled 'Communique number one' which referred to its decision to 'remain in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt.' This was initially read as something akin to the military taking over, but it could also be interpreted as preparation for a more repressive move.
  3. There is a serious rift within the regime. The expectations that Mubarak was going to resign were in part fueled by members of the regime, including the head of the ruling party, Hussam Badrawi. It may even be that the original interpretation of 'Communique number one' was correct and the military was genuinely expecting Mubarak to stand down. This would mean a very serious breech has now opened, not just between the military and Mubarak but also between the military (specifically the Defence Minister, Field Marshall Tantawi) and Vice-President Suleiman. My gut tells me that this is what is happening, but it is very hard to be sure. The key signal will be how the military reacts now: 'Communique number two' should be very interesting.

So what next' Expect bigger, more furious protest in coming hours. The period after Friday prayers has been a big time for protests so far, but the protesters are so angry they may not wait that long.

This is a major miscalculation, not just by Mubarak but by the regime.

It had a chance to dispense with Mubarak but save (much of) itself. For a solid week and-a-half we were in post-Mubarak Egypt. Whether Mubarak was going to go now, or in September as he promised, was simply a matter of detail — albeit a very important detail. In effect, what we were witnessing was a negotiation between the rest of the regime and the protesters about how different post-Mubarak Egypt would be from Mubarak's Egypt. The regime hoped to make the minimum concessions to get the protesters off the streets. 

But now, by allowing Mubarak to hang around, by so spectacularly under-bidding in this negotiation, the regime has ensured that even when Mubarak is eventually forced to go — as I still expect he will be — the wrath of the protesters will remain focused on the system as a whole.

We are in a really dangerous phase. If the military does indeed move to protect the regime, it will lose the confidence of the population, potentially paving the way for a direct and very bloody confrontation and splits within the military. If the US has any role to play in this now, it is to get a very firm message to the Egyptian military not to go to war with its own people.

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