It was one of modern history’s great anti-climaxes. For hours, stories had circulated that Hosni Mubarak would step down. US and British journalists, evidently plugged into State Department and Foreign Office sources, circulated reports that Mubarak would use an address to the Egyptian nation at 10pm on Thursday night to announce his resignation.
It wasn’t just Western journalists. The new head of the ruling National Democratic Party, Hossam Badrawy, announced he had told Mubarak that he should leave. Stories circulated of Egyptian Army officers telling protestors Mubarak would resign. Mohamed ElBaradei and Wael Ghonim both tweeted as if convinced Mubarak’s departure was a fait accompli. Al Arabiya reported officials as saying Mubarak would step down.
Al Jazeera stayed skeptical, referring only to speculation about Mubarak’s resignation. And then Al Arabiya network appeared to have secured a copy of the announcement, revealing on Twitter that Mubarak wouldn’t step down, but hand some powers to his vice-president, the torturer and murderer Omar Suleiman, and announce some constitutional reforms.
That didn’t appear to reach the protesters on the ground. As the time for Mubarak’s address came and went, the jokes about what was delaying him circulated, and Western journalists high-fived each other on Twitter about who had broken the Mubarak-resigns story, the anticipation built. But when Mubarak, looking more like Bela Lugosi than ever, finally appeared, it became clear within a couple of sentences that the old dictator was going nowhere.
Mubarak’s speech, offered from the point of view of a father delighted to be hearing what the young people of his nation had been saying, was like a transmission from some distant planet wholly unconnected with anything happening in his country and appeared almost calculated to send protesters into a rage. Only toward the end, in a single and unclear line, did Mubarak almost off-handedly state that he was delegating his powers – some powers, many powers, all powers wasn’t clear – to Suleiman.
In Tahrir Square, where well over 1 million and possibly over 2m protesters were gathered, the mood turned feral as anticipation of celebration gave way to fury. Al Jazeera juxtaposed Mubarak’s speech with a shot of Tahrir Square, and it was plain even at thousands of kilometres’ remove that the only effect of the tyrants’ words on them was to deeply enrage them.
Mubarak’s speech was deeply confusing – one former Egyptian general called him “mentally ill”. He made much of his intention to remain until Presidential elections – now to be in September again, after the regime had suggested they might be brought forward – and discharge his responsibilities. That of course was entirely at odds with his subsequent delegation of powers to Suleiman. But what powers had he delegated? The Egyptian Ambassador to the US rushed to US media outlets to say Mubarak had surrendered all his powers, but that appeared at odds with Mubarak’s own words.
Suleiman followed Mubarak on television, and didn’t clarify the matter. The old torturer, who could make an invitation to a kid’s birthday party sound like a threat, demanded that protestors go home and lashed out at “satellite television stations” that wanted to divide Egypt.
It was quickly apparent that the Obama Administration had been caught – again – on the hop. CNN reported that it had been expected that Mubarak would resign. President Obama rushed into a meeting on the matter. The US objective in this revolution is – like Israel’s – surely to ensure that its good friend and reliable ally Omar Suleiman stays in control.
The Egyptian Army appears now, more than ever, to have a casting vote on exactly how this “transition” proceeds. El Baradei has already called this morning for the Army to intervene, otherwise “Egypt will explode”. There are rumours the Army itself, like the Americans, expected Mubarak to depart and was as surprised as the Tahrir Square protesters when he defied them. But the Army has taken the lead in harassing and detaining journalists and protesters in recent days, with hundreds of reports of Egyptians detained, beaten and tortured by soldiers.
The protesters themselves have simply declared they will continue until Mubarak goes. There are calls for 20 million Egyptians to protest across the country in coming days. The commitment to non-violence – unless attacked by Mubarak supporters and security forces – that has been on display right from the outset of this revolution but is likely to be strained like never before as more Egyptians protest outside the state-run television headquarters and the presidential palace.
The protesters have not yet secured Mubarak’s departure, but they keep taking to the streets and the regime keeps having to offer them concessions. If there was any thought that the protests would wind down in the last week, Mubarak’s delusional performance has now given them a huge stimulus. There is no way out of this for the Mubarak dictatorship. It will fall one way or another. It is in the hands of the Egyptian Army as to how much bloodshed accompanies its fall.