President Mubarak’ speech last night clearly disappointed not only the protesters on Tahrir Square but also many more Egyptians, probably their vast majority, and the US administration. His decision to transfer some yet unspecifized powers to his new vice-president Omar Sulayman was far from meeting the expectations of people who hoped for his immediate departure. But it is not surprising that he should try and cling on to power as much as he can, at least for the time being. He does not want to appear to be pushed out by the protestors or by the American administration.
Eighteen days of protests may not be enough to prompt the departure of a man and indeed an entire regime that has been in power for thirty years, and in many ways continues to build on ideological foundations, institutions, constituencies, networks, and vested interests that date back to the 1952 revolution. Stronger yet than the weight of the past are fears for the future. After all, much is at stake, not only for the Mubaraks, but also for the armed forces, the police and security’ apparatus, the regime party and many others who threw in their lot with the regime. Immediate material interest ranging from jobs to bank accounts abroad must be secured, and if possible the transition and the new order must be influenced in ways to avoid unpleasant surprises including criminal charges against regime representatives and their marginalization in the continuing struggle for contracts, privileged access to credit and positions of power.
In its second proclamation today Friday morning the Higher Military Council continues its balancing act between the president and the protestors, as it edges closer to suggesting a solution of sorts. While people continued to return to Tahrir Square in great numbers the proclamation supported the ‘legitimate’ demands of the people, promised to guarantee the personal safety of the protestors, and endorsed more concrete political change including presidential elections and the lifting of the state of emergency. However, it also conditioned such changes on the current situation calming down and, it seems, the return to ‘normal life’, which in the eyes of the army may well include an end to the protests in the Square and elsewhere. The commitment to change is stronger than before, possibly even the timeline. At the same time it puts up conditions that the protestors may not be ready to meet. It also coincides with additional measures on the ground to defend cucial places such as the state television building on the Nile corniche.
Behind an apparently coherent solution to the current crisis the statement may betray divisions within the military that could be sensed yesterday. The first proclamation by the Military Council in the morning and the statements by a general who later visited the protesters seemed to indicate a widening gap between the armed forces and the president; the general indeed announced to the protesters that their demands would be met. In contrast, Mubarak’s declaration in the evening seemed to indicate continuous military support or tolerance. They also contradicted earlier statements by the new secretary general of the regime party, Hossam Badrawi, as well as high ranking US officials.
Internal divisions in the army no doubt reflect divided loyalties to the president on the one and the ‘people’ on the other hand, including emotional reactions to pressures from abroad, but also fears about the future of the army as an institution and as a supplier of entitlements and power which, after all, are closely connected to the future, strategic importance and external relations of Egypt as a state. Understandably, these issues may take time to be discussed and resolved. Some officers may already consider Mubarak as a liability, others may still think that he can be of some use, be it only by deflecting attention from their own attempts to defend their position in the emerging future order. If no common position can be found and the army splits things may get a lot more complicated and nasty. There is talk about rifts between the hierarchy and junior officers some of whom might be talking to the protesters. In the past officers always managed to sort out their differences, but the past is not necessarily a guide to the future. Nor is the army the only armed pillar of the regime; there is a presidential guard and there is still the police which successive presidents tried to establish as a counter weight to the army. Nonetheless, they too will assess the advantages and disadvantages of continued support for Mubarak.
So far it seems the protests are continuing unabated. Some initial effects of confusion and discouragement after Mubarak’s speech seem to have given way to renewed determination which, however, may have to last for some considerable time to be effective. Protesters may have to make a difficult choice: get or keep the entire army on their side but reduce their protests to rather symbolic actions, or keep up the pressure and lose the support of the army or part of it. Similarly in the army divisions may appear with some of them marching to the presidential palace of trying to occupy the state television building. Loss of army support could defeat the movement, but the immediate ‘return to normal life’ would deprive it of its only means to pressurize its adversaries. Continued foreign pressures will no doubt be an important factor in the decisions of both the protestors and the army.