Won't Get Fooled Again? What to Make of Egypt's New Power Configuation

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Egypt's demonstrators have succeeded in forcing Mubarak to relinquish powers. But the country's future could end up looking an awful lot like its past.

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Forty years ago, the Who memorably warned that revolutions usually end in disappointment. "Meet the new boss/same as the old boss," Roger Daltrey sang in 1971. With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announcing on Thursday that he is ceding many powers to his handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, the people of Egypt--and the Obama administration--will soon find out whether that old lyric still holds true.

First, of course, Egyptians will have to find out who their new boss is, and that was not immediately clear. Reports from Cairo throughout the day on Thursday indicated that Mubarak was preparing to formally step down, and CIA Director Leon Panetta went so far as to say that there was "a strong likelihood" that the president would leave office that evening.

When Mubarak finally appeared on state-owned television just before midnight Cairo time, however, he gave a meandering and opaque speech that obscured far more than it illuminated. Mubarak said he was transferring much of his authority to Suleiman, but he also indicated that he planned to remain in office until new elections can be held in September. The enormous crowd of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, who had been jubilantly expecting a resignation speech, began chanting "leave, leave" as it soon as it became clear that Mubarak planned to stay in power, at least nominally.

When Suleiman followed with his own remarks urging the demonstrators to "go back to your homes, go back to your jobs," the lines of division between the regime and the people seemed to ominously harden. Adding to the confusion, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, said on CNN on Thursday night that he had talked to Suleiman, who indicated that "all authority has been transmitted to him." The vice president "is now the de facto president," Shoukry said.


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That isn't how the crowds in Cairo interpreted the speech. Their disappointment and rage was a vivid reminder of just how historic Mubarak's exit would have been. Virtually no Arab leader has ever left office voluntarily, with most instead remaining in power until they were killed, driven into exile, or forcibly deposed. Had he listened to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding his ouster, Mubarak--the head of the Arab world's intellectual powerhouse and most populous nation--would have become the exception to that bloody rule.

Instead, his speech makes the possibility of new violence far more likely. The millions of people who have taken to the streets of Cairo and Egypt's other major cities in recent weeks are unlikely to return home anytime soon. For a few fleeting hours, they thought they had accomplished something that would have once been inconceivable: forcing an Arab strongman from power without violence. Now that the situation is so muddled, the protest movement--which has to date been almost entirely peaceful--could easily turn to open rebellion against the regime. "We stand literally at the abyss," Aaron David Miller, a Mideast adviser to six U.S. secretaries of State, said on Thursday.

In the hours before Mubarak's address, several administration officials made clear in interviews that they were privately thrilled by the prospects of his departure. Instead, the White House now faces a regime that has rejected several of its demands--most notably for the immediate lifting of Egypt's emergency laws--and appears to be digging in against the pro-democracy demonstrators, regardless of whether Mubarak or Suleiman holds the ultimate authority. In his speech, Mubarak himself pointedly said he would never accept "foreign dictations, whatever the source might be."

Despite the defiant Thursday night speech, there is little doubt that Mubarak's time in office is drawing to a close. He repeated his promise to leave office after the country's next elections, which will take place no later than September. And if Shoukry's interpretation is correct, Mubarak will remain in office only as a figurehead. "The de jure head of state is Hosni Mubarak; the de facto head of state is Omar Suleiman," he told CNN.

Whenever Mubarak leaves the stage, the key question will become who else follows him out the door. During Mubarak's 30 years as Egypt's paramount ruler, he built an extensive power structure that included civilian allies such as Suleiman and Fathi Sorour, the speaker of the country's parliament; the uniformed leadership of the country's powerful armed forces; and the top officials of Egypt's intelligence services and feared internal-security apparatuses. Those men have long been the central players in the Mubarak regime, and one key factor in Egypt's immediate future will be how loyal they remain to Mubarak--and each other.

Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University who lived in the country for nine years, said that Mubarak had become "irrelevant" days earlier, with the real power resting in the hands of Suleiman, Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, and Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, Egypt's top military officer.

"Mubarak is a dead man walking," Stacher said. "If Mubarak were to go away to Germany tomorrow for medical treatment and never came back, it wouldn't change what's already going on--the regime reconstituting itself at the top."

Suleiman, for instance, has so far offered token concessions to the protesters while rejecting more-substantive changes, such as the elimination of the country's hated emergency laws, which allow the government to detain its political opponents without charge. His own speech on Thursday night at times struck a threatening tone, as when he insisted that the nation will not "be driven into the dangers of chaos" and declared: "Oh, young men of Egypt ... go back to your homes, go back to your jobs."

In his speech on Thursday, Suleiman said that Mubarak had "put the higher interest of the country above anything." The lavish praise left Suleiman even more closely identified with Mubarak in the public eye, suggesting that despite his new authority, he will face enormous difficulty establishing himself as a legitimate agent of change to the protesters in the street.

"Suleiman is reading from the same script Mubarak has used for decades," said Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He's making cosmetic changes while trying to keep the regime itself intact."

A popular joke had been making the rounds in the days before Mubarak's surprise speech on Thursday: President Obama called Mubarak and said it was finally time for him to say good-bye to the Egyptian people. Mubarak was silent for a moment and then asked, "Why--where are they going?"

The punch line reflects Egypt's ossified political culture, which has historically been dominated by autocratic leaders who stayed in office until they died or were driven out by opponents. Gen. Muhammad Naguib took power in 1953 after forcing the last Egyptian monarch to abdicate. Naguib was in office for just one year before being deposed and placed under house arrest. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Naguib's successor, took power in 1956 and ruled the country until he died in 1970. Anwar Sadat, Mubarak's predecessor, led the country from 1970 to 1981, when he was assassinated after signing a peace treaty with Israel. Mubarak has been in office ever since.

Now it's Suleiman's turn to try his hand as the country's de facto ruler, even if Mubarak retains his title as president. Suleiman has enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship with Mubarak for decades, and the two men have similar military backgrounds. He is likely to draw support from Egypt's powerful defense minister, Tantawi, who has been so publicly and privately deferential to the president over the years that a classified cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2008--and recently made public by WikiLeaks--said that younger Egyptian officers derided the defense minister as "Mubarak's poodle."

"Omar Suleiman is just Mubarak with a different name," said Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the University of Exeter. "He will try to wear down the activists and keep them off-balance by using a combination of carrots and sticks. The threat of violence will always be there, and the carrots themselves will be poisoned."

Suleiman is already using an array of tactics--many modeled on ones that Mubarak employed during his decades in office--to weaken the protest movement and buy more time for the regime. Suleiman held a high-profile meeting last week that included representatives of some--but not all--of the protesters as part of an effort to divide the opposition. He has issued vague promises to implement political reforms, but he pointedly ignored the Obama administration's calls for broader outreach to opposition groups and a halt to the arrests and harassment of journalists and protesters. Suleiman has also been warning that the current unrest could lead to a military coup or a power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood, a clear attempt to frighten Western policymakers into backing off from their demands for Mubarak to step aside quickly.

In his speech, Mubarak said he would push forward a series of constitutional changes designed to open up the country's insular political system and lead to the eventual lifting of the hated emergency laws. Dunne, who edits the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Bulletin, noted that if Suleiman were genuinely committed to reform, he could also champion changes now that would allow for a more reasonable amount of time for both sides to prepare for the upcoming elections

"It's a little rich for them to suddenly argue that the constitution is sacrosanct and that they have no choice but to follow the letter of the law," Dunne said, noting that Mubarak secured amendments to 34 articles of the constitution during March 2007 alone.

Mubarak loyalists have been deliberately vague about how far they're willing to go in setting the stage for true multiparty elections. Egypt's current constitution would make it virtually impossible for the opposition to mount a credible campaign for the presidency because only existing, legally recognized parties can nominate candidates, and those candidates must be party leaders who have held their positions for at least one year. They've also been murky about whether they will tolerate continued public protests or attempt to bring them to a potentially forced end. Suleiman's remarks on Thursday--with his pointed requests for protesters to leave the streets--certainly hinted that the regime may adopt a harder line.

Dunne and other Egypt experts believe that the demonstrators aren't likely to accede to those demands anytime soon, largely because of a belief that their numbers are the only thing keeping them safe from the country's feared security forces.

It won't be the first time that mass crowds of protesters faced such a decision.

In a recent essay, Ashour noted that in early 1954, 1 million Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to protest Nasser's transformation of the country into what was effectively a military dictatorship.

Nasser said he would hold open and free elections that summer and promised to spend the intervening months implementing an array of political reforms. Abd al-Qadir Audeh, one of the leaders of the demonstrations, took Nasser at his word and asked the protesters to go home. Audeh was arrested hours later and executed, along with other protest leaders, the following year. Egypt's current protesters are well aware of their country's bloody political history. The question is whether Mubarak's muddled message to his people means that both sides are bound to repeat it.

Photo: Egyptian anti-government protesters flash Arabic banners with the names of martyrs of the Jan. 25 countrywide protests as they march in Suez, Egypt. By AP/Anonymous

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Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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