This morning Australian time, Egypt’s tottering dictator Hosni Mubarak, addressing his people in the face of vast demonstrations demanding he go, expressed the desire to die on the soil of Egypt.
Right now, there’d be a few hundred thousand Egyptians at least who’d be very happy to help him out on that score.
Mubarak’s address came at the end of a day in which protesters’ call for a “million march” was most certainly met, with well over that figure gathering in Tahrir Square to demand that Mubarak, in the words of one chant, f-ck off. Egypt’s state-run media kept insisting through the day that the protests were confined to a few thousand, and equalled by a pro-Mubarak gathering. Perhaps that was why Western news agencies, including our own ABC, described the protesters as “hundreds of thousands”.
But the truth was revealed by Mubarak’s ashen demeanour and his promise to not contest elections to be held later this year — insisting, in fact, that he had never intended to contest them.
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Whatever you reckon, mate.
Mubarak has already ordered his new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, to begin negotiations with opposition figures. Unbanning opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood might be a handy first step in such negotiations. But remember Sulieman’s expertise is in a different kind of “negotiation”, involving torture, interrogation and murder.
At times Mubarak’s speech read like an outtake from his effort on Friday night, when he responded to what were, at that stage, unprecedented demonstrations by promising reform, with his claim that the demonstrations were being used by opponents to destabilise Egypt. But the promise to not contest the next election was utterly insufficient for the vast crowds in Tahrir Square and across Egypt demanding he go right now. Their response to the speech, carried on Al-Jazeera (where else?) said it all — fury and reinvigorated calls that he go immediately. The anger sent the #Egypt hashtag on Twitter into a blur.
Many Egyptians appear convinced Mubarak will use the period between now and the scheduled elections in September to further rob the country or use his security forces — many of whom have donned plain clothes to engage in looting and violence during the demonstrations — to murder and imprison opposition figures and demonstration leaders.
US officials — perhaps missing a simpler world where their word was law — had been spreading the word with US media outlets before Mubarak’s speech that the Obama Administration had worked out a good solution. CNN, perhaps convinced by the State Department, reported the crowds in Tahrir Square “cheering” in response to Mubarak’s speech. It’s testimony to just how badly flat-footed this revolution has left the Americans that they could seriously think Mubarak remaining in power even for an “orderly transition” is acceptable to Egyptians. The “orderly transition” the Americans mainly appear interested in is to a new government that won’t upset the geopolitical status quo.
So this is not over but, to mangle Churchill, perhaps it’s the end of the beginning. Mubarak certainly won’t last until September, and maybe not even beyond this week. And then the question will be asked — is already being asked, in fact — who next? Two down, 20 to go. Maybe Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has already committed to reform in the face of events in Egypt and Tunisia? Or the Jordanian monarchy, which overnight dumped Prime Minister Samir Rifai in favour of former PM Marouf Bakhit to head of swelling protests? And then there’s another US ally, Yemen.
The only positive thing you can say about America’s role in all this is that, so far, US-allied regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have proven loath to go to the extreme of using the sort of sickening mass murder used by the Iranian mullahs — and the butchers of Beijing — to head off widespread protests. Syria might be a different matter altogether.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s actions on December 17 last year may yet cast a long shadow not just across Arab, but world history.