After days of unprecedented Egypt street protests driven by demands that the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak end, the aging Egyptian leader finally emerged from seclusion to address his people.
At midnight last night he told Egyptians he has "exhausted my life for the country," informed them that he has "always insisted that sovereignty lies with the people," and said his first duty was to "defend Egypt's security and stability." He labeled protesters arsonists and rioters, insisted Egypt is "a state of institutions governed by the rule of law" and appeared to warn Egyptians to heed uprisings in other countries "that drove people to chaos and mayhem that brought them no benefits."
His concrete concession? A cabinet reshuffle. Mr. Mubarak's demeanor and words made it clear that he had no intention of going anywhere.
If Mubarak was hoping his speech, which aside from its references to this week's extraordinary events could have been cribbed directly from his commentary in decades' past, would defuse the crowds, he would have been sorely disappointed today. The Egyptian people responded.to his comments by defying an overnight curfew and pouring out onto streets across the country today, redoubling their demands he be driven from power. The cabinet? It answers to Mubarak and carries out policies he sets. If they've failed, the ultimate responsibility lies with him.
"His address yesterday was very disappointing to everyone in Egypt... they don't want this regime, they want change," Abdallah al-Ashal, a former assistant to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, told Al Jazeera English. "President Mubarak doesn't understand the scope of the demonstrations and their demands. Either he should respond to them or he should leave."
BBC Arabic reported a crowd of 50,000 in Alexandria. Al Jazeera was carrying footage of tens of thousands streaming through the seats of Cairo. Al Jazeera English reported that the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was torched in the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor (on Friday, the NDP building in Cairo was destroyed in a fire set by protesters). Clashes with police have claimed dozens of protesters' lives in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in the past 24 hours, though it will be days before an accurate national death toll can be sorted out.
President Obama finally spoke to Mubarak after his speech Friday night. The US is a key backer of the Egyptian regime, providing $1.3 billion in military aid last year, and a withdrawal of support would be catastrophic for Mubarak. Mr. Obama stopped short of that in his remarks after the phone call, but echoed previous warnings from the US against a harsh crackdown and urged Egypt to accelerate "reform."
"Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people, and suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," Obama said. "All governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion."
Perhaps, but coercion has kept Mubarak in power since 1981. Egypt's last parliamentary election in November was the country's most fraudulent in decades (the ruling NDP won over 95 percent of the seats in parliament) and was preceded by the arrest of hundreds of activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group.
The Brothers have not played a visible role in the current demonstrations, which have been characterized by shouts of "freedom" and denunciations of official corruption, not the organization's famous slogan that "Islam is the solution." But the Brotherhood's popularity in Egypt has left US policy-makers uneasy about the prospect of fundamental political change in Egypt.
Neither Obama nor any member of his cabinet has yet to call for "democracy" in Egypt during the unfolding crisis – the formulation so far has been a demand for "political reform" – though the US president did make a clarion call for democracy in his famous speech in Cairo in June 2009.
"I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights," he said then. "Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy."
Egypt's next chance to have a meaningful election is next September, when a presidential election has been scheduled. Until the events of the past week, it was expected to be as rigged as the others that have taken place in Egypt in the recent past, delivering either five more years to Mubarak or perhaps passing the reins to his son Gamal, who many in Egypt believe has been groomed to succeed his father.
A possible avenue of response to Obama could be opening up that contest, though it would require constitutional changes and a rewriting of electoral laws to hold a truly free and fair election.
The Egyptian military is emerging as a central actor in determining what comes next. Unlike the police and the security apparatus, which do everything from extracting bribes from street peddlers to running Egypt's torture centers, the army is widely respected in Egypt and viewed as protectors of the people. Mubarak called out the army to the streets yesterday and so far the protesters have embraced the soldiers.
In multiple instances the soldiers and their tanks have shielded protesters from the riot police seeking to defend the regime. Will the army turn its guns on the people, and squander its public reputation, to keep Mubarak in power? That's the big question on everyone's mind in Egypt right now and the answer will be given in the coming days – perhaps as soon as tonight. Mubarak sought to tighten the overnight curfew today – declaring all citizens must be off the streets after 4:00 p.m. Reporters and activists in Cairo say the protesters have no intention of obeying that order.