To understand why pro-democracy protesters in Egypt are braving violent attacks and ignoring government demands that they return home, it’s helpful to remember that this isn’t the first time in recent years that Egypt -- and the broader Middle East -- appeared to be on the verge of major political change.
In 2004, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and other major cities to demand that President Hosni Mubarak not seek another term in office or attempt to hand power to his son, Gamal. The protesters were known as the “Kifaya” movement, from the Arabic word for “enough.”
And for a time, change seemed imminent. In Lebanon, protesters toppled the country’s Syrian-backed government in what came to be called the Cedar Revolution.
In Egypt, state media reported that Mubarak was preparing to replace much of his government and make it easier for parties to take part in future elections. However, the aging leader announced a constitutional amendment in February 2005 that instead further consolidated his own power at the expense of the country’s small opposition movement. The provision nominally opened presidential elections up to other candidates, but there was a major catch. Only candidates from officially recognized parties -- or who managed to gather hundreds of signatures from officials loyal to Mubarak -- would be allowed to appear on the ballots, which effectively ruled out any real competition. Mubarak was reelected with more than 86 percent of the vote.
Those who live in the Middle East have long historical memories, and the dashed hopes of the protesters of 2005 are clearly on the minds of many of the protesters of 2011.
Egypt’s newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, told state television on Thursday that Mubarak was committed to stepping down when his term ends this year and reiterated that his son Gamal wouldn’t be a candidate in the coming elections. Mubarak himself made similar points during a later interview with ABC News.
In response, the crowds barricaded into Cairo’s landmark Tahrir Square -- the scene of fierce fighting between protesters and armed Mubarak loyalists -- were shown chanting “Leave! Leave! Leave!” Egyptians interviewed by the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera said they didn’t trust Mubarak’s vow to step down and worried that he would use his final months in office to figure out a way of handing power to a hand-picked successor.
“There have been moments in the recent past where constitutional amendments were promised, and real changes were promised, and then nothing happened,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress. “It’s ‘once bitten, twice shy.’ Egyptians have a hard time believing that this time is for real.”
Egyptians aren’t the only ones doubting their embattled leaders’ promises to step aside. In the wake of protests which toppled Tunisia’s government last month, Yemen’s longtime strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said he wouldn’t seek reelection to another term in office. But near-daily protests against his rule have continued -- in large measure because Saleh famously made that exact same promise before.
“You are tired of me and I of you, it is time for change,” Saleh told the country’s parliament in July 2005. The following year, after staged demonstrations which eerily resemble the pro-government rallies now taking place in parts of Egypt, Saleh said he would “comply with the people’s pressure” and seek reelection after all. He won in a landslide.
Mubarak and his aides, for their part, have made a series of inflammatory comments about the pro-democracy protesters, further fueling fears of either a violent crackdown or a back-channel effort to retain power.
On Thursday, Suleiman said the pro-democracy protesters were being manipulated by unspecified “foreign influences” and blamed the recent fighting in downtown Cairo on a “conspiracy” by Egypt’s enemies. Suleiman said Mubarak had just 200 days left in office, and would use all of them to ensure that the country has as orderly a transition as possible. Mubarak told ABC he wanted to resign immediately, but feared chaos would break out if he did.
Retired Adm. William Fallon got to know Mubarak and his closest aides well during his tenure as chief of U.S. Central Command in 2007 and 2008. He said that the Egyptian leader had “figured out that it was over” and wouldn’t try to hold onto power.
Fallon said Egypt would benefit from a transitional government that could help lower tensions during the run-up to this fall’s elections. But he said there were no Egyptian officials with the standing or clout to take the helm of such a government, primarily because Mubarak refused to allow for transition planning to begin while he was still in office.
“There was no plan for succession, which is the legacy of having a guy who was happy being king for so many years,” Fallon said in an interview. “It’s very easy to leave. It’s not very easy to pick up the pieces and get something done. And there was never any real planning to have someone ready to step into this position.”