Four or five days ago, it looked as if the Egyptian revolution might be running out of steam. A combination of government concessions and mob violence had reduced the numbers of protesters on the streets, attacks on journalists had raised fears of a crackdown, and the self-confidence of the opposition seemed to be wavering.

But by Wednesday this week the protests were back to record strength, and the regime evidently felt it had to try something new. Through the day on Thursday (overnight, Australian time) rumors spread that president Hosni Mubarak would soon be announcing his departure — fed by a call for his resignation from the secretary-general of the ruling party, and an announcement from the army that suggested a military coup could be in the offing.

When the speech came, however, it was not what the crowd wanted. There was a slightly comic interval as Western comment was put on hold while waiting for a full translation of Mubarak’s remarks, but the people on the street – who had no such problem – were emphatic in their rejection.

The disappointment was similar to what followed Mubarak’s address last week, in which he promised to stand down in September. But quite apart from all that has happened since then, this week there is the major tactical difference that he spoke on a Thursday evening, and Friday — the major Muslim day of prayer — is when the opposition will be at peak strength. As Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times says, “The regime seems so out of touch as to be almost suicidal.”

As I write it’s a little before 3am in Cairo; while many protesters have gone home for the night — vowing to return — there are evidently large numbers still on the streets. Morning could bring a major confrontation, and perhaps the last opportunity for the armed forces — which still seem to enjoy the confidence of the opposition — to avert bloodshed. The BBC has just quoted an al-Arabiya report that another statement from the army may be on the way.

It’s hard to believe that Mubarak and the army are still on the same page. It looks more as if the generals have been bending over backwards to give him time to do the right thing, while summoning up the courage to move against him if all else fails.

At 82, Mubarak is an old man; he looks tired and out of touch. He has already said once that he would like to resign but is afraid of chaos when he leaves, and while there is an obvious element of insincerity in that, there is probably some truth as well. And like most autocrats he is keen to preserve not just his dignity and personal safety but also his family’s wealth.

The prospect of a peaceful transition to vice-president Omar Suleiman — who is now being referred to as “de facto president” — has receded; the opposition clearly regards him as on a par with Mubarak. At the same time, Suleiman’s rhetorical support for the goals of democracy, hollow though it might be, has compromised his ability to engineer a crackdown.

Pessimists in the West have argued that an army takeover, whether fronted by Suleiman or someone else, would be no improvement on Mubarak and would preserve the dictatorship with only cosmetic changes.

But I think this is a misunderstanding of how revolutions work. Once regime change happens, the new regime, whatever its own inclinations, will be constantly looking over its shoulder at the crowd, for fear of being replaced in its turn. No one expects a random Egyptian general to be a committed democrat, but one who owes his position to a popular uprising will be in a very different position to a long-standing incumbent dictator.

The army may, of course, try to tough it out. But if Mubarak, with the accumulated power and patronage of 30 years, couldn’t do it, it’s hard to see how a successor could weather the public anger. Let’s just hope we don’t find out the hard way.

And in case you haven’t seen it, here is the  “Protest Sign Of The Day“, from Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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