Moment of truth for Egypt’s military


The high expectations of protesters in Tahrir Square turned to fury Thursday after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak delivered a speech in which he made no mention of leaving office before his term ends in September. Crowds had swarmed the square for hours as speculation grew that Mubarak was stepping aside after 30 years in power. They heard instead from the president that he was "delegating power" to Vice President Omar Suleiman. Now the focus shifts to Friday, one of two regular protest days (the other is Tuesday) on the demonstrators' weekly schedule.

Ellis Goldberg, professor of political science at the University of Washington and visiting professor of political science at the American University in Cairo:

As with most of Mubarak's speeches since the political crisis began, this one was a mix of pathos, defiance and threat. He asserted that the committee he appointed to propose constitutional reform will have only limited scope and will be able to make it possible to end the state of emergency. He did not offer to end it himself. He rejected any far-reaching reform, such as his own departure, as foreign-inspired.

Ten days ago, Mubarak's proposals might have worked. No longer: None of the protesters trusts the president or any of his associates. Besides his remaining in power, he also made it clear that there would be no change in the overall system over which he has presided -- no change in government regulation of political parties, no changes to enhance the independence of the judiciary and no changes in the power of the office of president.

Anger at Mubarak is deepening and widening. Workers, including 24,000 at a large factory in the industrial belt of the Delta, are going on strike. Leading professional figures openly oppose the government. One prominent judge has argued that the constitution need not be amended but can be rewritten in Tahrir Square.

Mubarak did clearly say one true thing in his speech: The people of Egypt are in a ditch. They agree, but they see him as the person who put them there and has prevented them from getting out. On Friday, even larger protests will happen, and at some point, then or soon after, the army will have to decide how this all ends. Either it will let the protesters overwhelm key locations of authority, or it will use force to prevent it. Friday promises to be yet another big day in Cairo.

Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of "The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil":

This was the voice of old-school authoritarianism. It is the classic response of Arab leaders when faced with an internal threat. They raise the specter of foreign interference, they label attacks on the regime as attacks on the people, they identify with the pain of the "masses," and they position themselves as the ultimate defenders of the nation's glory.

These are two men tone-deaf to the roar of the crowd.

Both of these speeches were thick with the language and cadence of the paternalistic past. As one Egyptian tweeted moments after Mubarak's speech, "Father knows best."

The Egyptian president cloaked himself in the robes of the pharaohs, to which he is so often likened by his critics, invoking Egypt's 7,000-year history and insisting that he "will not accept or listen to any foreign interventions or dictations."

Picking up on the same theme, Suleiman lectured "the young people, heroes of Egypt," telling them to return home. "Do not listen to the satellite stations that have no objective but to weaken Egypt and mar its image," he said.

"It is not about me," Mubarak said. But it is. And chants of "leave, leave, leave!" that erupted from the protesters in Tahrir the moment they realized he was not stepping down made that clear. The idea that he is ceding some unspecified powers to Suleiman will simply not cut it with the masses on the streets.

The future of Egypt now lies with the Army. The generals must now be weighing where their own long-term interests lie. With more mass protests planned for tomorrow, the choice is clear: Turn on the people or tell the old man it is time to go.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Mubarak's defiant Thursday speech has done nothing to prolong his tenure in power. On the contrary, it has made protesters even more determined to oust him, greatly decreased the already slim probability that Suleiman will be an acceptable interlocutor to members of the opposition and increased the probability of a military takeover.

Suleiman's brief speech after Mubarak's address, in which he encouraged the protesters to go home and go back to work, was equally out of touch with the mood in the country. Delivered while growing crowds of demonstrators in Cairo and Alexandria kept up the chant of "go, go" that had started as soon as it became clear Mubarak was not going to resign, the exhortation for calm was futile at best.

Demonstrations on Friday will be huge as a result and will not abate in the following days. Suleiman is unlikely to find participants for continuing dialogue among members of the opposition.

At this point, the army appears to be the only organization that can break the impasse. Thursday morning, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, meeting without Mubarak, issued Communiqué Number One, pledging to continue searching for "possible actions and measures to safeguard the aspirations of the Egyptian people." Stay tuned for Communiqué Number Two.

Bruce Rutherford, associate professor of political science at Colgate University, is the author of "Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World":

As the maneuvering in Cairo continues, it is increasingly clear that the military will play a broad role in any process of transition -- much more than just maintaining security. It is also expected to oversee the opening of the political system and the restructuring of the economy.

However, there is no evidence that the military supports democracy or even considers it a good idea. Indeed, much of the political elite, of which the officer corps is a part, is skeptical of the desirability of open political competition. They fear that it might be exploited by charismatic populist leaders -- particularly Islamists.

A key question going forward is whether the military will allow free and fair elections that include peaceful Islamic groups. If it does not, the legitimacy of a democratic transition will be seriously undermined. The military may also be an ambivalent supporter of economic reform. It has huge economic interests that include vast swaths of land and factories that produce everything from bread to refrigerators.

Any serious effort at economic reform must reduce the military's role in the civilian economy. Will the generals allow this restructuring to go forward, even when it challenges their economic interests?

Isobel Coleman, author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: Thursday began as a day of great anticipation for Egyptians. The army heightened expectations by announcing that the protestors' demands would be met. Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim galvanized the crowds by tweeting "mission accomplished" to his followers.

A mood of euphoria spread among the growing crowd in Tahrir Square over the notion that Mubarak would step down. That mood quickly turned ugly as his televised comments made clear he was digging in his heels, reiterating that he would die on Egypt's soil.

Again, Mubarak defied those who call for his departure. Even had Mubarak stepped down on Thursday, it would have met only the first of the protesters' demands. They seek the removal of the entire regime and wholesale constitutional change.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to try to spin the story. In his address, Mubarak appealed to the people, saying that the blood of martyrs would not be wasted and that he would not bow to foreign intervention. Suleiman echoed him, calling for unity and an end to chaos and rejecting the messages on satellite television -- in other words, go home and be quiet.

Thursday proved yet again that we should expect the unexpected. But it is also clear that the protesters are not going to heed Suleiman's words any time soon.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch:

Pro-democracy protesters have every reason to distrust Mubarak, whose strategy has been to stall long enough to orchestrate a controlled transition in which the dictator may change but the dictatorship remains intact. His aloof, out-of-touch speech did nothing to suggest a change of heart.

Whoever remains atop the Egyptian government, concrete steps are needed immediately to lay the groundwork for free, competitive elections. The stalling tactics must end. Rather than claim that Egyptians are "not ready" for democracy -- Suleiman's line -- the government should urgently lift the decades-old state of emergency and repeal laws that give the Interior Ministry broad powers to arrest and detain persons and limit the rights to freedom of speech, association and peaceful assembly.

By the same token, the attacks on demonstrators that have been sponsored and tolerated by the government must end, as should the ongoing detentions, mistreatment and torture, with serious abuses investigated and prosecuted.

To make elections meaningful, a committee that is genuinely independent of the government -- not Mubarak's hand-picked cronies -- should be given authority to make the necessary legal and constitutional changes, to register political parties and to ensure that the basic freedoms of all competitors are respected.

Only these broad changes, enacted now, will ensure a genuine democratic transition, not just a new dictatorship.

After decades of backing Mubarak, the United States and European Union governments should finally put the wishes of the Egyptian people first and use the considerable leverage provided by their massive aid to insist on these changes immediately. Mubarak's delusional efforts to reduce the democracy movement to foreign pressure show that he is feeling the heat. Now is the time to turn up the temperature.

Parag Khanna, author of "How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance" and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation:

After Mubarak's disappointingly tone-deaf speech to the people of Egypt on Thursday evening, events there could swell in a more outraged direction. Still, we must not lose sight of the longer-term dynamic for which we need to be prepared.

America needs to radically rethink its Egypt strategy. Remember that no matter who the civilian leader of Egypt is, its military -- America's putative ally and client -- is still the most powerful institution behind the scenes.

Even so, this is the time for the U.S. to reach out and establish working relationships across the spectrum of Egyptian politics. Only by playing all sides -- even working with the Muslim Brotherhood -- can the U.S. be assured that it is not caught off-guard without any connections or leverage with whomever prevails in future Egyptian elections.

People power is a lot more complicated than having one "son of a bitch" who answers the West's calls, but that's the price of democracy.

It's not enough that the next president of Egypt not be Mubarak or Suleiman. It's far more important that the next president -- and every president thereafter -- not be a military strongman or authoritarian despot. This can happen only through genuine constitutional reform.

What so often holds back political progress -- for example, in countries like Ukraine -- is that the constitution is a chessboard on which the same few players constantly shift the rules to make sure that their portfolio reigns.

Indeed, Mubarak has at most partially transferred some authority to the vice president, but power still resides with him and the military. Instead, Egypt's constitutional system must be converted from a president republic to a parliamentary democracy.

This means the power must rest with a prime minister and with several independent political parties below. For all the gridlock of parliamentary systems, we should still prefer that Egypt look like more like Italy than Algeria.

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