Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A speech, a wish, but no plans to step down

President Hosni Mubarak’s second speech in less than a week carried no surprises. He mentioned his sacrifices to Egypt, highlighted his military service, announced that he never had a desire to run for office again in September, and gave the world a taste of how he clung to power for thirty years. Most importantly, his tone of voice and choice of words indicate defeat although if you read the text of his speech only or listen to the dubbed English translation, you might get the impression that he was boasting with confidence and defiance. In my opinion, it was indeed a defeat speech without the admittance of defeat.

Despite all his efforts to control the demonstrations and suffocate their voices of dissent, Mr. Mubarak spoke as if the protesters didn’t exist. He didn’t address them directly or answered their complaints or their demand for him to step down.

That’s how Mubarak descended from the president being asked for reform, to the president being forced to reform, to an enemy of the people who say he must step down. The more out of touch he behaved, the less they wanted anything to do with him. Day after day their voices got louder and their tolerance level sank until they wanted him to step down and leave the country, even face trial.

As the world started indicating that Mubarak has no place to go but out, he spoke again. Who did he address his Tuesday speech to? The protesters? No. The neighbors and allies? No. The enemies? No. The U.S. and the west? No.

1. It seems to me that the speech was addressed to himself, his immediate supporters and to the other millions within Egypt who still relate to him as the legitimate president. He was convincing himself and his supporters of his obvious defeat. He formulated his speech to say that he’s getting older and that he’s served his country honorably for three decades as president and before that he fought in the army. So, what more would he want out of life? This was a case of thinking out loud to allow the idea to sink in, in preparation for his imminent departure from office, which according to him, will happen at the end of his term.

2. As far as Mr. Mubarak announcing he wasn’t going to seek another term in office, that was already the expectation on the ground. U.S. officials will be fooling themselves if they think they convinced him not to seek another term. Actually, his plan was to pass the presidency on to his son Gamal; that was his real intention for the September elections. Notice there was no mention of that tonight and it remains an option.

3. Then he enumerated his achievements and love of Egypt. I don’t know one Egyptian who wouldn’t melt when the love of Egypt is brought up in a conversation or speech. More than any other people in the world that I know, Egyptians are very emotional about their Egypt, “Mother of the Universe” as it is commonly called. Mr. Mubarak was betting on a portion of the population to get emotional about their president of the last thirty years and prevent any plans that have him end up like Tunisia’s Ben Ali on a plane negotiating for some country – any country – to take him in after his people ousted him.

4. Bringing up the most taboo subject of all – Death. For Arabs, like many other cultures, there is no dignity or pride around the subject of death. This is a time of surrender. It marks the end of everything relating to this life. In particular, hatred and grudges are put aside when someone dies. Funerals are often used as a way to end a feud between families, tribes or countries. Even criminals are eulogized after death. So here’s Mr. Mubarak telling his people he simply wants to die on Egyptian soil. How can you refuse him that wish?

In summary, these are the underlying points of Mubarak’s speech oversimplified:

· I’m old

· I’m leaving office in September

· I will serve my term and ensure peaceful transition of power

· I only want to finish what I have left of my life in dignity

· I want to die in Egypt

For sympathizers, that’s enough to get them to stand up for him and challenge the demonstrators’ demands for him to “go away now!”

Mr. Mubarak delivered the message as if his authority wasn’t shaken and as if people weren’t aware of all the friendly appeals and loud cries for him to step down. He didn’t say - either on purpose or out of habit - the two simple words of “Please” and “Sorry.” Those would’ve shaped his message to the protesters and MAY have given him some kind of opening with them.

So, now he created at least two camps within Egyptian society: On one side, a group that is already sympathetic to him and unhappy with the opposition that has among its ranks the banned Muslim Brotherhood. They would believe him and trust that he will keep the promises he made.

On the other side is a group of millions of demonstrators that will stop at nothing to get Mr. Mubarak out of the presidency as quickly as possible. They don’t trust a word he says, they don’t consider him the legitimate president anymore and they’re adamant about him stepping down immediately.

The security apparatus is very loyal to President Mubarak and will follow his orders to the dot. This means possible violence on his orders against the protesters under the pretext of fighting hooligans, gangs of thieves and bad guys. It would also mean that the acts of violence will likely spread, blood will shed and innocent people will get hurt while groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood will advance their agenda and Egypt will enter a period of unprecedented lawlessness with an instability that will have ripple effects throughout the region.

This leaves the role of the army open. So far the Egyptian army has shown measured restraint. We even heard media reports of several cases of solidarity between army personnel and protesters. Army chiefs made it a point to tell protesters that they won’t be harmed and called their demands “legitimate” in an official statement. This can change though as within the army there might be a split based on Mubarak’s attitude and future. If a split happens within the army ranks or between the army and the protesters, the situation can turn even more disastrous than the scenario above.

For now, President Mubarak is staying put amid the distrust in his leadership capabilities from his people as well as leaders around the world. The way he has handled the crisis in the past two weeks shows stubbornness and lack of engagement with his people and his country’s realities. It also shows that he’s counting on his friends and allies within Egypt and outside to keep him in power regardless of the consequences and regardless of the price that Egyptians could pay with their lives, properties and livelihoods.

President Mubarak’s speech is full of symbolism and the future will shed more light on what those symbols represent for sure. It’s quite amazing to watch history unfold on the man who ruled Egypt in fear for three decades. Tuesday’s speech as the one a few days before it and the historic events in neighboring Tunisia just a few weeks ago must be surreal to Mr. Mubarak and his entourage. To us, the observers, an unusual but welcome scene of possible change. An Arab world of Kingdoms, Sheikhdoms and life-term presidencies is watching nervously, wondering who will be next and if or when their turn will come.

The rest of this week should shape Mr. Mubarak’s future. For a change, the people hold the fate of the man whose title alone made millions shake of fear once. How they view him after the speech and how high a price they are willing to pay to get him out will determine the course of history not only for Egypt but the entire Middle East region.


Now the army asked protesters to go home. Anti-Mubarak demonstrators will have to defy the army’s orders and stay or indeed go home and end or delay their action.

Clashes erupted between the anti Mubarak demonstrators and pockets of pro Mubarak supporters that showed up in force some on camels and horses. These confrontations are already proving to be violent and threaten to throw the country into chaos. The army will have to interfere to control the situation.

The NYT Nick Kristof writes in his Twitter feed: "In my part of Tahrir, pro-#Mubarak mobs arrived in buses, armed with machetes, straight-razors and clubs, very menacing"

Al-Jazeera reports the following "no one in their life time has ever seen anything like this in Egypt"

Additional elements and suggested readings

Hosni Mubarak's speech: full text

President Hosni Mubarak addresses the nation 1/28/2011

Egypt goes entirely offline

Plan To Replace Hosni Mubarak May Be In The Works


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