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February 11, 2011
Mubarak Takes the Measure of the Mob
What would have been gained had Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned as anticipated Thursday? Would the mob in Tahrir Square have gone home so Cairo could return to normal? Or would the protesters have smelled blood and made more demands that would have made any "orderly transition" impossible?
Reporters circulating through the crowd in the hours before Mubarak's speech reported that the succession of Vice-President Omar Suleiman would not be acceptable, and even a military-led interim government until elections in the Fall was unpopular with many. The protesters had already been demanding the dissolution of parliament and major changes in the constitution.
Tony Karon at Time.com found Abubakr Makhlouf, a 33-year-old entrepreneur, who said "We trust the military, we think there will be a fair transition so that the rest of the world does not have worry about crazy things happening." But Karon also reported,
Even if Mubarak had made the expected full transfer of power to Suleiman or the generals, 34-year-old activist Ahmed Shahawi said there was deep anxiety over the prospect of the military taking charge. "I am between being afraid and being happy," Ahmed said Thursday evening. "This is not what we wanted; we want a democratic, civilian government. We don't want another military ruler... We are not fighting because we hate Mubarak, we are fighting because we hate the regime itself."
Aljazeera reported a similar response from a self-proclaimed radical,
"It looks like a military coup," said Essam al-Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but tolerated group which is the biggest organised opposition party in Egypt. "I feel worry and anxiety. The problem is not with the president it is with the regime."
Mubarak undoubtedly believes that to "cut and run" would gain nothing. He was not, then, speaking to the mob. He was speaking to the rest of the 18 million people in Cairo, as well as the 84 million people in the country at large, who are not actively involved in the "uprising." At midday on Friday the BBC reported only "a few hundred" demonstrators at the presidential palace. Filling Tahrir Square looks more impressive that it really is in terms of political strength.
The broader public may want change, but they do not want chaos; and the deal offered to them is reasonable. Time is needed for opposition parties to groom candidates, formulate platforms and present them to the public, and for the authorities to organize fair election procedures which can stand the scrutiny of international monitors. No one is ready for an instant "regime change" or has any idea where an unspecified "transition" might lead. A revolution is the antithesis of orderly reform.
Mubarak's key statement was,
I announce in very plain, unequivocal words that I will not run in the coming presidential elections....I will adhere to this position and similarly remain adamant to shoulder my responsibility, protecting the constitution, safeguarding the interests of the people until the authority and power is handed over to the person who will be elected in fair and free elections.
Mubarak has passed to Suleiman many presidential powers, and has left the capital. Talks with opposition parties will continue and many reforms will be implemented. The military will remain on guard against radicalism while shepherding reform. This is the position President Barack Obama should have supported when it was first proposed last week. Instead, Obama joined the mob in making more demands encouraging a further slide towards chaos.
In the wake of Mubarak's speech, the White House issued a statement that was more nuanced. It did not call for Mubarak's removal. It said, "We believe that this transition must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change, and a negotiated path to democracy." This could be read as a description of the course Mubarak has set out.
Mubarak's fate is uncertain, but he has shown the courage to fight for his vision of Egypt as a bulwark against radicalism; a vision upon which the U.S. has built its strategic posture in the region and should want to see endure.