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

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.


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."

Presented by

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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