With due appreciation to Groucho Marx, Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you…He really is an idiot. The pro-democracy protests in Egypt began in force on January 25th, and yesterday, Thursday, February 10, 2011, there were early indications that president-for-life Hosni Mubarak intended to resign.
Well, guess what? He isn’t going to resign. Mubarak has declared he is delegating authority to Omar Suleiman, his vice president, but that he will stay on for now. The New York Times reported on the interesting, confusing sequence of events yesterday in advance of Mubarak’s speech: A 3:00 pm announcement by the Prime Minister implying that Mubarak was ready to resign, assurances by 2 generals of the Egyptian Army who visited the 500,000 Tahrir Square demonstrators that “all your demands will be met today,” then a later announcement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that it was “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”–interpreted by some of the more-optimistic protesters as an indication that the army was planning a coup.
Yes, trust and respect of Hosni Mubarak, his new vice president General Omar Suleiman, and his National Democratic Party is so low among the protesters that many of them hope to be delivered from it by a provisional military government. Even Mohamed el-Baradei, the former General Director of the IAEA whom has been appointed at-large spokesman for the pro-democracy protesters, called for deliverance by the military after the disappointment of Mubarak’s Thursday night speech: “I ask the army to intervene immediately to save Egypt. The credibility of the army is being put to the test.”
Let’s consider the red meat of Mubarak’s non-resignation speech:
“This time is not about me. It’s not about Hosni Mubarak. But the situation now is about Egypt and its present and the future of its citizens.
“All Egyptians are in the same spot now, and we have to continue our national dialogue that we have started in the spirit of one team and away from disagreements and fighting so that we can take Egypt to the next step and to regain confidence in our economy and to let people feel secure and to stabilize the Egyptian street so that people can resume their daily life…
“I have delegated to the vice president some of the power – the powers of the president according to the constitution. I am aware, fully aware, that Egypt will overcome the crisis and the resolve of its people will not be deflected . . . .and will [inaudible] again because of the – and will deflect the arrows of the enemies and those who [inaudible] against Egypt.
“This will be the land of my living and my death. It will remain a dear land to me. I will not leave it nor depart it until I am buried in the ground. Its people will remain in my heart…”
So: President-for-life Mubarak insists he will spend the rest of his life in Egypt. Ironic, then, that at this rate a growing and intensifying opposition to his rule that may ensure he does. I think Hosni Mubarak has had his “Let them eat cake” moment. He has demonstrated that all the talk of his shrewd political instinct has been over-determined, a myth. A friend of mine had a, more theoretically-precise way of putting it: “Mubarak doesn’t understand the Davies J-Curve.”
There are certainly still many observers who remain pessimistic about prospects for a democratic transition in Egypt, and they make plausible references to both Mubarak’s past habits of breaking the law, manipulating the public’s trust, and plausible deniability to argue that even the circumstances of his resignation must have authoritarian conservation as its underlying motive. This argument goes: Having appointed a former general, Omar Suleiman, as his first vice president, Mubarak has favored a military man with connections to his regime as his successor. This is essentially an effort to consolidate all political power in the hands of the military by pitting the army as the de facto defender of the people against…well, his own police apparatus. Of course, considering the continuation of protests in Tunisia until the resignation of most of Ben Ali’s old ministers, it’s more than likely that skeptical Egyptian masses won’t accept leadership by Vice President Suleiman following this latest stunt.
Omar Suleiman, previously and least plausibly suggested as a suitable leader for a transitional government in the archconservative National Review and elsewhere, has disqualified himself through his own speech, immediately-following Mubarak’s non-resignation speech, in which he asked, “Youth of Egypt, heroes of Egypt, go home and go to work so that we can build and create. Do not listen to the stations and the satellites that have no goal other than sedition and to weaken Egypt’s image and its image. You should listen to your conscience and your reason and consider the dangers that surround you.”
This combined expression of parternalistic exasperation towards the opposition, nationalist paranoia and veiled threat has Mubarak’s fingerprints all over it. By taking the supposedly-outgoing president-for-life’s line, he has jeopardized his previously-considerable chance of leading a transitional government. The protesters have the initiative because their demands have been ignored with such insolent spectacle. It’s Friday now, the largest public prayer day of the week. This is the time when the most people can be rallied for demonstrations–and opposition leaders are calling for 20 million Egyptians to stand and be counted, and for a march on the presidential palace. In any event these protests are going to be big. Egypt’s president-for-life chose the wrong day of the week to send his people such an insulting message. Today the Egyptian Army will have to decide whether to stand by their previous commitent to protect peaceful demonstrators. If they keep that commitment, then we’ll see whether Hosni Mubarak can take a hint like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.