There are growing signs that despite his determination to remain Egypt's modern pharaoh until he dies, Hosni Mubarak may be reaching the end of his 30-year rule.
Ultimately, that decision will be made by the usually invisible men at the top of the country's praetorian bureaucracy – the military-security elite who have sustained Egypt's three presidents since a group of colonels seized power and declared independence in 1952.
For the moment, these senior military men who have surrounded and sustained Mubarak -- and been promoted by him -- seem to have formed a common front with him to resist demands for the ruler’s ouster and a transition to a new more democratic political system. But they may be willing to sacrifice their long-time leader if that is the price of retaining the military’s traditional power, prestige and resources, some veteran Egyptian watchers argue.
“Hosni Mubarak is not the regime,” said Steven Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who has just returned from leading a council study group to Cairo.
Egypt, he said, is ruled not only by Mubarak, but by the equally enduring senior military and intelligence officials – among them, Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief whom he recently designated as Egypt’s vice president; Ahmed Shafik, the former chief of the Egyptian Air Force and former head of civil aviation, perhaps his closest confidante and now his newly designated prime minister; and Lt. Gen. Sami Annan, the chief of staff of the armed forces, who was meeting with his American counterparts in Washington D.C. when the protests turned violent and he returned to Cairo.
“These are Hosni’s guys,” said Cook, the author of “Ruling but Not Governing,” a book about the Egyptian, Algerian and Turkish militaries. But they would probably be willing to “throw him under the bus,” he added, to secure their own powers, prestige and privileges and shore up the regime.
On the other hand, if they conclude that their interests and those of the regime are more likely to be protected if Mubarak remains in a transitional role, they will fight to ensure that he is not dumped prematurely.
On Sunday, the opposition took a major step by uniting around Mohammed ElBaradei, the former arms inspector agency chief and Egyptian Nobel prize winner who, lacking his own credible political base, has sought to make himself a leader of and spokesman for the disparate opposition groups. Briefly under house arrest earlier last week, he joined thousands of protesters over the weekend in Cairo’s main Tahrir Square to demand that Mubarak step down.
Although ElBaradei has no independent political base, his emergence as a key opposition leader was assured when the influential Muslim Brotherhood, the only mass organized opposition group in the country, announced that it was unifying behind him to secure its demands. While the Brotherhood has maintained a low profile throughout the mass protests, there are deep concerns within Egypt and Washington about its program, strategy and intentions.
The unwillingness of the protesters to accept a transition role for President Mubarak or any of his senior aides, and growing determination of the now seemingly united military not to yield to the activists’ demands, has produced a volatile and dangerous political stalemate.
The growing chaos and violence in Egypt, in turn, prompted senior Obama administration officials to reorient their strategy and rhetoric over the weekend. In a day-long meeting on Saturday, according to Les Gelb, a former State Department official and retired head of the Council on Foreign Relations, the White House decided to lean away from the protesters as the leaders of Egypt’s transition and toward Mubarak.
In an indication of the new tilt toward Mubarak, if only as a transition figure, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reversed the administration’s earlier statement that it was reviewing military and economic aid to Egypt.
On Sunday, Clinton declared that U.S. aid to Egypt, the fourth largest recipient of American assistance after Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel, was not on the table. Although she has continued to press for “an orderly transition to a democratic government,” she did not call upon Mubarak to step down or transfer power.” She also endorsed what she called “national dialogue” involving all of the country’s key political players, though she did not identify them specifically.
Regime supporters also took comfort in the fact that although the secretary of state and other senior American officials continued insisting on reform, the address of those demands remained President Mubarak.
The anxiety and soul-searching among regime circles in Cairo has been prompted not only by its sense that the Obama administration has abandoned them but, more importantly, by the virtual collapse of vital parts of state authority since Egyptians took the streets to demand Mubarak’s ouster six days ago.
In many cities, the Central Security Forces retreated and then disappeared almost entirely after waves of assaults against them and high-profile government buildings exhausted them. Only within the past two days have military units taken their place.
But protesters said that those forces and the Mubarak regime have been discredited not only by their willingness to use force against protesters (which the army so far has been unwilling to do) but by their involvement in what protesters say is the cynical release from prisons of over 5,000 criminals and thugs who have been robbing, looting, and forcing Egyptians out of the public squares back to defend their homes and property. "This is a cynical ploy for which the regime will be held accountable, and it won't work," said Basem Fathy, an activist with the Egyptian Democratic Academy, a pro-democracy group.
Another political pillar of the regime, the National Democratic Party, the government’s party that won more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats in an election last November that was denounced by Egyptian and other foreign critics as riddled with fraud, has also apparently collapsed.
The party’s headquarters was attacked by protesters, and within a couple of days its offices were empty, its spokesmen nowhere to be found. A third base of regime support that appears to have crumbled is that of the wealthy, influential businessmen who made fortunes thanks to their support for the Mubarak family and the regime.
The Arabic press has been filled with assertions, many of which could not be independently confirmed, that as many as 19 private jets had left Egypt carrying some of Egypt’s wealthiest businessmen. Purported to be among them, one pro-democracy activist said, was Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate who is a NDP activist and a close friend of Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and one-time heir-apparent. The protesters’ hopes now seem focused on maintaining a united front among secular and religious opposition groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
Several American analysts cautioned against demonizing the party and opposing reform simply because of the Brotherhood’s involvement in the reform movement.
Judith Kipper, of the Institute of World Affairs, for instance, pointed out that the Brotherhood had never polled more than 20 percent and that it was not violent in Egypt. The vast majority of Egyptians, she said, do not sympathize with them. If there were free and fair elections, she predicted, they would be a player, but one that would not overstep. “For years Washington has been told to oppose reform because ‘the Islamists are coming, the Islamists are coming,' ” she said. "No they are not.”
Other critics of the movement, however, insisted that the Brotherhood threatened American policy and interests in Egypt and the region. “Our foremost fear should be an abrupt change of power or chaos that will benefit only extremists.
Our foremost worry should be self-delusion,” Gelb wrote. The Brotherhood’s ascension, he wrote, would be “calamitous” for American security. The Brotherhood, he wrote, “supports Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers, would be uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli agreement of 1979, widely regarded as the foundation of peace in the Mideast. Above all, the MB would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide. That is a very big deal.”
The next few days should be critical. On Sunday, ElBaradei called for nationwide strikes to force Mubarak from office. He also said he welcomed the chance to work with the military to help re-establish order and form a “government of national salvation in coordination with the army.” The initiative is seen by Mubarak supporters as a ploy to divide and separate the military from the president and his allies and friends.
The opposition is also speaking about calling for another major protest if Mubarak has not announced that he will be stepping down by then. That could trigger a bloody confrontation between security forces and protesters.
The Obama administration urged the roughly 25,000-30,000 Americans living and working in Egypt, along with tourists and other visitors, to leave the country. Non-essential personnel among the American Embassy’s roughly 500-person staff are also being flown out to safer locations in Europe.