Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his decision Tuesday not to seek reelection in September, a move meant as a compromise to the thousands of protesters demanding his departure from power.
All eyes will now shift to Friday, some experts in the region say, when the dissatisfied protesters are expected to launch another major march to demand that Egypt's military take their side and force Mr. Mubarak’s departure.
“The military will be the deciding factor in this standoff between Mubarak and the protesters,” says Julie Taylor, a specialist in Egypt at the Rand Corp., a think tank in Arlington, Va. “The young people in particular are going to demand that the Army take their side and insist that Mubarak step down.”
For his part, President Obama said in a statement Tuesday that the transition "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." Though he did not specifically address Mubarak's plan, he added that he "recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place."
Protesters’ unmet demands risked obscuring what nevertheless was a remarkable moment: The authoritarian leader of 30 years of the Arab world’s largest country had just bowed, if not fully acquiesced, to popular demands. In addition to saying he won't run again for president, Mubarak called for a rewriting of the constitution to limit presidential terms, and to strengthen guarantees of the rule of law. He also said he would order a review of last year’s parliamentary elections, which Egyptian opposition forces and foreign observers alike criticized as particularly corrupt.
Mubarak pledged to oversee “the transfer of power that will fulfill the people’s demands,” but even that statement seemed to contain the seeds of continuing protest. Mubarak appeared to be saying that he intends to head up the transitional process, even if he invited all opposition forces to participate in it.
Noting that he is a “man of the military” and claiming that he never sought “power or prestige,” Mubarak did appear to lay down a red line to the forces calling for his departure.
“I have fought for this country and I will die on its land,” he said. In other words, don’t look to me to follow the footsteps of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian leader who fled his country on the heels on massive protests earlier this month.
One question is what role, if any, the US played in nudging Mubarak toward his decision. The White House had dispatched a respected former ambassador and friend of Mubarak’s, Frank Wisner, to Cairo to carry Washington’s message and to glean a better idea of the Egyptian leader’s intentions.
The White House appears to have preferred something between Mubarak's immediate departure from power, which the protesters are seeking, and his announcement that he would not run again for office. According to officials, Mr. Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, was sent off with instructions to try to nudge Mubarak toward announcing an imminent departure from power – perhaps once an interim government had been established.
Some Egypt experts say it is important to remember that Mubarak’s message, though unsatisfactory to the protesters, may strike a chord with millions of Egyptians who have become increasingly alarmed in recent days about the country’s deteriorating economic conditions.
If a situation emerges pitting one camp’s demands for immediate change against another sector of the population’s comfort in the idea of an orderly transition, they say, it may indeed yet be the military that is required to step in more publicly and settle the standoff.