Mubarak Shocks the World by Staying Put

The Egyptian president said he will oversee a political transition in September but did not step down as many expected

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When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appeared on state television today to address the nation and hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters crowded into Cairo's now-iconic Tahrir Square, people across the world readied for the embattled leader to utter an historic pronouncement. They were disappointed.

Mubarak reiterated his plan not to run in the upcoming presidential elections in September and said he would protect and amend the constitution until a transfer of power takes place. But he refused to relinquish power or cave to foreign pressure. He did strike a more conciliatory tone with protesters, arguing that those who had died during the seventeen-day uprising had not died in vain.

The crowd in Cairo was galvanized by rumors swirling all day that Mubarak would resign and buoyed by endless rounds of spirited chants and renditions of the national anthem. But once it became clear that Mubarak was not stepping down, the mood swung from celebration to extreme frustration, as people chanted "get out, get out" and waved their shoes in the air. Some analysts are saying the situation in Egypt has now grown explosive, with CNN reporting that some demonstrators have exited Tahrir Square in the direction of the presidential palace.

All morning long, news outlets offered conflicting reports about what the seventeenth day of demonstrations would bring, though all signs suggested that the political crisis in Egypt had reached a critical juncture. Some sources indicated that Mubarak would relinquish control to his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, others that Mubarak would hold fast to his power, and still others that the military was poised to seize control of the government. Earlier in the day, the Egyptian army issued a statement--"Communique #1--" that some argued was tantamount to a military coup. Military leaders promised to "protect the people, and to oversee their interests and security" and recognized "the legitimate demands of the people."

The speech began over 40 minutes late, only fueling the feverish anticipation and a Twitter stream of jokes about why Mubarak was running behind. As protesters waited, Egyptian state television ran programming that seemed rather incongruous with the moment--tourism spots, sports and weather updates, and bulletins about military hospitals and government corruption.

Reacting to Mubarak's address, Nicholas Kristof lamented, "Dictators have an amazing capacity to fool themselves and be oblivious to reality. As #Mubarak is showing."

We'll update soon with how others are reacting.

Updated 5: 11pm

How are others parsing Mubarak's speech?

  • Huge Demonstrations Ahead, suggests Fareed Zakaria on CNN: "My guess is you will see the largest protest you have ever seen in Egypt, tomorrow."
  • Mubarak Patted Himself on Back, argues The Guardian's Ian Black. The Egyptian president, he says, sought to remind Egypt's "silent majority" about his sacrifices as a soldier and steadfast defense of the country's interests. He played "father to his people, self-centred, determined, and above all defiant in the face of what turned out to be catastrophically misplaced expectations that he was finally about to bow out."
  • And He Didn't Really Relinquish Any Power, adds The New Yorker's Amy Davidson: "Mubarak said that he would give Suleiman some powers--but he spoke of it in terms of a man whose to-do list is longer than ever, and bringing in some reinforcements, not someone who is withdrawing from public life. (What happened this afternoon? Was there a counter-coup to the non-coup, or just a failure of will? And what will the Army do now?)"

Updated 5:45pm

More reactions:

  • 'Egypt Will Explode', tweets opposition leader Mohammad ElBaradei: "Army must save the country now."
  • Speech Was Meant to Inflame, contends national security professor Robert Springborg, as quoted by Reuters: "The speeches tonight are not intended to bring an end to the crisis in a peaceful way but to inflame the situation so there is justification for the imposition of direct military rule. They are risking not only the coherence of the military but even indeed, and I use this term with advisement here, civil war."
  • 'Worst Speech Ever', declares Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch. Lynch suspect Mubarak may have made one decision earlier in the day and changed his mind in the lead-up to the speech, "and that people inside the Egyptian military and regime are themselves scrambling to figure out their next move. If the military has any plans to step in this would be a good time." He adds that Vice President Suleiman discredited himself among the opposition by instructing protesters after Mubarak's address to go home and ignore foreign media.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.