Omar Suleiman, looking like a president in waiting, took to Egyptian state television tonight with dark hints of conspiracies behind the democracy protests, a dismissal of demands for immediate political reform, and words of loyalty and respect for President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Suleiman – Egypt’s long-standing foreign intelligence chief until this past week, when he was named Egypt’s first vice president since Mr. Mubarak took power in 1981 – made a play for Mubarak to hang on until presidential elections in September, which the 82-year-old leader has promised not to run in.
"Standing down is an alien philosophy for the Egyptian people... Egyptians aren’t the ones asking for this. We [Egyptians] respect Hosni Mubarak, our father," he said in an interview with government TV. “We can talk about complete constitutional reform when a new president comes on the scene. We have no time to discuss it now."
But Egypt’s current electoral laws and Constitution are rigged against outsiders and strongly favor the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Suleiman himself is among the few Egyptians who fulfill the current candidacy criteria. (Among other things, a candidate must belong to a legal party that won at least 3 percent of parliamentary seats in the last election. The fraudulent parliamentary election last November gave the NDP about 95 percent of the seats and the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt's most organized opposition movement – remains banned.)
Suleiman alluded to the chance that the requirements could be eased and some reforms could happen before an election, but stressed that Egypt “has to put restrictions on who can run for president.”
Protesters reject Suleiman's comments
Egypt’s democracy protesters, many defying a curfew in Tahrir Square in central Cairo tonight, immediately dismissed his comments, particularly his claim that their demands have been met and his call to “end your sit-in."
“When he said that a president stepping down is alien to us, people in Tahrir were almost fainting,” says Khaled Abol Naga, an Egyptian film star who’s spent most of the past few days with demonstrators at Tahrir calling for Mubarak’s downfall.
“People were enraged by these stupid claims in the year 2011. [The regime] thinks the people are a bunch of animals. These are a bunch of educated Egyptians, not the Muslim Brotherhood, not other parties. It’s people from all walks of life and they’re determined that Mubarak go,” he says.
Blaming 'foreign agendas' for unrest
Suleiman also sought to bolster a narrative that’s been spun out by new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and other officials in the past day: That unidentified “outsiders” created the violence that claimed at least 10 lives around Tahrir Square on Wednesday evening and early Thursday. Suleiman said that “many of the protesters in Tahrir Square have foreign agendas.”
That reference to “foreign agendas” appeared to be an attempt to label Egypt’s democracy protesters as working for US or Israel, a favorite dissent-stifling tactic of regimes from Tunisia to Syria. Mubarak has maintained good relations with Israel during his reign and the US has arguably been his most important international backer, at least until the events of the past two weeks.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist and academic, was hounded as a foreign agent and jailed for three years over a decade ago. His crime? “Daring to criticize the Mubarak family’s increasingly dynastic ambitions,” as Middle East historian Juan Cole put it this week.
Cairo’s protesters found themselves being painted with the same brush by Suleiman tonight.
“Actually, there is a plot if you read between the lines in Suleiman’s statements and on state TV,” says Mr. Naga, the film star. “They’re stating that there are infiltrators, foreigners involved, to confuse the people, so if the US does come out in support of us they can point and say: ‘See, it was a US plot, it was the CIA.’ ”
Naga says if that was Suleiman’s intent, then it didn’t work. “People don’t trust [the regime] anymore, and they know they will be brutally jailed and killed if they give up now before real change has happened.”
Tomorrow, protesters have vowed their biggest demonstrations yet.