The first sign that something was seriously amiss, that the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square who had waited joyously for the victory they thought was promised to them had been misled, came when Hosni Mubarak began talking about the punishment he was about to exact on those who had harmed his “sons and daughters,” the Egyptian people.
Whoa, this did not sound like a fellow about to leave the stage. This sounded more like a pharaoh who intends to survive in power for a lot longer, even if he is already politically mummified. “I will not be easy in punishing the people who have caused these injuries,” Mubarak said in his speech to the nation late Thursday. “And I will also hold accountable all the people who have committed crimes against you.”
In the eyes of the protesters, of course, Mubarak himself has been the chief criminal over a 30-year-reign. And it wasn’t long into his speech that the outraged throng started to shout “Get Out! Get Out” as they realized he was not, in fact, about to resign, as rumors all day had indicated.
Indeed, Mubarak’s strategy is by now very clear: appeasement and attrition. Over the past weeks he has thrown out one minimal concession after another: first, the appointment of a vice president, his intelligence chief; then the announcements that neither he nor his son, Gamal, would run for president; the ousting of his party’s leadership; and, finally, the broad hints that he would cede control over to the army that came on Thursday.
In an interview on CNN after Mubarak’s speech, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Sameh Shoukry, indicated that Mubarak had already “transferred his authority” as president to recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman and was now only “de jure head of state,” while Suleiman “is now the de facto president.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what that meant. What is clear is that all of these moves have been made in an effort to split and weaken the protest movement: Satisy enough of the demonstrators that change will come, hoping that as the protests drag on -- and they grow tired or worried about their jobs -- they will stay home in increasing numbers.
And all of it is a desperate attempt to distract attention from the fact that the demonstrations are all about him. It “is not about myself and not about me, Hosni Mubarak. It is about Egypt,” he said.
But it is.
Hence, in his speech, Mubarak promised “peaceful transition until September” in which he would make good on his promise to have “fair and square elections.” He insisted that Egypt's Constitution “will not be undermined” (even though his regime has largely ignored it) and that it would be the basis “for some kind of smooth transition of powers.” He spoke of having “received the first report yesterday with the constitutional amendments that are a very high priority.” And he inveighed against “foreign interference,” saying: “We will not be dictated to by anyone.”
He will, instead, continue to dictate. The greatest risk now is that even if Mubarak does get eased from power, once the protesters go home the old system will reassert itself, as indicated by the regime’s refusal to rescind the emergency laws in place since Mubarak’s 1981 takeover. “The likeliest strategy on the part of the military is to concede the dictator but not the dictatorship,” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, one of a group of experts called in by the White House recently to consult.
For the moment, the protesters would like just to see a serious concession from the dictator.