When protests demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak erupted in mid-January, the consensus was that he would be removed from office in a week, suffering a similar fate as former Tunisian President Ben Ali. Yet as the crowds grew and tempers flared, Mubarak remained as the head of state through each stage of this ongoing drama. Now that violence is escalating and the pro-Mubarak camp is taking to the streets, a new dimension is added to this story. And through it all, it looks as if the embattled president might just hold his office until his designated retirement date.
While Egypt's popular uprising started as a case of Tunisian 'flu (an illness that causes violent convulsions against unpopular autocrats), it has evolved into something far more complex, capturing not only the attention of the Arab world but also of the USA, and particularly neighboring Israel. This is not something as simple as a public cry for a new leader - it is a country experiencing change and the various actors in this drama are trying to have a voice in the outcome.
Last year it became evident that President Mubarak, who is 82 and reported to be in failing health, was grooming his son Gamal to ascend to the presidency in 2011 when the current presidential term ends. This did not sit well with the military, which has had one of its people in charge since 1952 (Gamal has no military credentials). The maneuvering required between the higher-ups in the armed forces (a number of whom have political aspirations) and Mubarak's allies has drawn considerable attention and sparked speculation about an Egypt under neither military rule nor emergency law (the latter since 1981). This would indeed be a new Egypt, but one that not everyone would be happy with.
Then there are the Egyptian people themselves. The median person in this 85-million person country is young, underemployed, feeling the pinch of stagnant wages with ever-rising inflation, and has never known an Egypt without Mubarak. The global recession only heightened the economic problems. And, the events in Tunisia brought that person onto the streets of Cairo, demanding whatever change would ease the growing strains of Egyptian life.
This public outcry is not, as one might think, a unified call for new leadership. It is worth noting that not everyone believes that Mubarak is the problem or that an open democracy is the answer. This has played into the president's hand. The march of Mubarak supporters into Liberation Square yesterday demonstrated that plenty of people have benefitted from the president's leadership (usually through public-sector jobs, lucrative contracts and so forth) and want nothing more than for his legacy to continue. Now add to this mix the forces who want to kick pro-USA and pro-Israel factions out of the government, other people who want the military to step down, and those few who want the radical fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to shape Egypt into another Iran. This is not a cry for change - this is trying to guide a transformation toward a preferred conclusion.
Looking back, it appears that Mubarak's plan has been sculpted very carefully over the past few weeks. First, he placed high-ranking military officials in the roles of vice-president and prime minister, apparently to assure them that there would be no dynastic succession and buy some time to prevent other elements from forcibly removing him from office. The military then engaged the protestors in a non-combative way, letting the people know that the armed forces would only maintain order and were not against the demonstrators. With those defenses in place, Mubarak announced he would step down at the end of his term and allow elections, but made no concessions beyond that. This placed divisions between the many protesting factions, giving most of the angry population a reason to declare moral victory. All that were left were the ones adamant about Mubarak's immediate dismissal, and they incited the anger of Mubarak's staunchest supporters.
There are a few points that are far more evident now that Mubarak has played his main cards. First, by comforting his allies and dividing his detractors, he has given himself the best chance of serving out the rest of his term, which is due to end in September. His survival is far from guaranteed, particularly considering his predecessor was killed by members of the military he now trusts, but he has created an environment that can keep him in charge. Second, his survival came at the cost of his son giving up all aspirations to be president. Aside from personal disappointment, this concession felt inevitable, so Mubarak traded it off for optimal value.
However, of greatest concern is that while Mubarak will not be president this time next year, he has all but assured that Egypt's political environment will not have changed much. In all likelihood, the next president will wear a uniform and the same cronyism will guide the economy. The people will have claimed a minor victory in removing Mubarak from office, but their real effort - to have a say in a new Egypt - will largely have been for naught. And unfortunately, without significant change in the way Cairo operates, the endemic corruption and poverty that brought the country to this point will remain, waiting for the next event that sends it onto the streets.