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Mubarak Chooses Chaos—and Gets the Boot (UPDATED)

8:43 AM, Feb 11, 2011 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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UPDATE: On Friday the Army made its decision. Mubarak was forced out. His Thursday speech was a disaster and it seems to have helped persuade the generals that they had, at last, to choose between Mubarak and the people. They made the right choice.

Mubarak Chooses Chaos—and Gets the Boot (UPDATED)

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Who rules Egypt, and who will rule it tomorrow? After 30 years the Hosni Mubarak period is coming to a close, but how the period ends—in violence and turmoil, or on a stable path to democracy—remains unclear. Mubarak’s insistence on staying in office until the bitter end may sacrifice the opportunity for a peaceful transition. His defiance is bringing Egypt’s Army closer and closer to the fateful decision to turn against the people—the only alternative to throwing Mubarak out.

Mubarak's fatal mistakes in recent years, the products of aging, his wife's dynastic ambitions, and the distance from the people that three decades in office made almost inevitable, were to refuse even minimal reforms and to leave his son Gamal as his potential successor. This presented Egyptians with a nightmare vision after last November's parliamentary elections were stolen: thirty more years of Mubaraks, without a scintilla of change or reform. That was the dry tinder; Tunisia was the spark that set it off.

The Army did not immediately take sides. It was initially smart enough to say it would not fire on the demonstrators and turn Tahrir Square into an Egyptian Tiananmen, but the institution waited to see whether Mubarak’s hard line would pay off and the demonstrations would flag. The military was complicit in the worst day of significant violence, when it withdrew so that thugs could attack the crowds in Tahrir Square. That violence did not cow the protesters and taught the Army a lesson: Mubarak and his crowd were mishandling things and could be dangerous for the institution. So when Mubarak lost the bet that a whiff of regime violence would clear the streets, he was forced to step back. He appointed a vice president and announced that he would not run again (nor would his son run) for president—a concession that would have avoided this entire historic confrontation had it been made a few months earlier. The Army waited to see if the protests petered out. 

When labor unions, lawyers’ associations, and finally even government employees joined the defiant demonstrators early last week, it seemed the people were not abandoning the struggle and Mubarak would have to go. But the old man refused: when he spoke on Thursday night he claimed that some of his powers would be delegated to Omar Suleiman, his new vice president, but he refused to step down. Put another way, even in the face of gigantic public opposition, the Army refused to push him out. Instead, Suleiman spoke right after Mubarak and told the protesters to leave the Square and go back to work. Their demands would be met, he promised, through a national dialogue and free elections in the fall. Hours later the Army high command weighed in, backing the Mubarak/Suleiman plan and repeating Suleiman's call for all demonstrations to end. The Army communiqué added that the emergency law would be lifted as soon as the demonstrations did, and free elections would be held.

It is already clear that neither these promises nor these commands will cool the desire for real change and for Mubarak’s departure. The Mubarak and Suleiman speeches were re-runs of "Father Knows Best" and might have been designed to incite the opposition: full of paternalistic claptrap about their love for Egypt and its youth, blaming all problems on foreigners and satellite networks, and bathed in the mawkish patriotism that for a half century has been used to justify the military dictatorship. The public is unlikely to accept Mubarakism without Mubarak, especially when that bargain is offered by Mubarak himself, clinging to his post. Egyptians appear to want what in essence Tunisians have won: genuine change. Tunisians mocked and raged when such change was promised by Ben Ali; Egyptians are rejecting Mubarak's poisoned offer.

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