By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - All those betting on the speedy departure of Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak were in for a big surprise on Tuesday night. Mubarak looked tired, worn
out by events of the past week, politically, mentally and physically, when he
addressed his nation, and the world, shortly after midnight with a brief
He was weak - politically weak - telling his people, and the West, that he will
not run for office for a sixth round in September. He was very unwilling,
however, to step down before his term ends and wanted to "die on Egyptian soil".
He added, "This is my dear homeland ... I have lived in it, I fought for it and
defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History
will judge me and all of us."
It was a pathetic farewell speech, in every sense of the world, with Mubarak,
83, reminding Egyptians and the world of how "great of a leader" he was for
Egypt. Much of that rhetoric was actually intended for the international
community, a plea for action begging world leaders to let him finish his term
with what remains of his dignity and not be ousted like friend and neighbor,
ex-Tunisian president Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali, or like President Ali Abdullah
Saleh of Yemen who has announced he will step down at the end of his term in
2013, after Yemen's own "day of rage"..
Egyptians from every end of the political spectrum immediately denounced
Mubarak's bid to remain in power, insisting that he must step down "today not
tomorrow". The joke circulating in Egypt is that Mubarak has ordered Egyptian
Airways to be on high alert to transport all 80 million Egyptians out of Egypt
if they were not satisfied with their president. The bottom line was, as far as
he was concerned, "I am not leaving before my presidential term expires!"
Mubarak's fate very much resembles that of Ben Ali, who fell from grace after 23
years in power, only two weeks ago.
Demonstrations broke out against him all over Tunisia on December 17 and he
cracked down with ruthless force, dismissing the rioters as outlaws who needed
to be punished. On January 10, he came out with a very harsh speech, turning a
blind eye to public anger, followed by a very conciliatory one on January 13,
telling his people, "I understand you!" Twenty-four hours later, Ben Ali was
finished, forced to flee Tunis.
Mubarak did the same, addressing Egyptians on January 28 with the same
arrogance, hoping that by dismissing the cabinet he could silence boiling anger
on the streets of Cairo. Although he did indeed create a new government and
finally appointed a vice president in the form of former intelligence chief Omar
Suleiman, the people of Egypt were not the least bit satisfied.
On Tuesday, he sounded more conciliatory than before, but was still relatively
defiant. Last week, the demonstrators were chanting: "We the people want to
topple the president." This week they were saying: "We the people want to
execute the president!"
Rioters ripped down his photographs, others set them ablaze while some set up a
hangman's noose in Cairo, publicly executing a dummy that represented Mubarak.
Offices of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were stormed and burned
down by rioters in different parts of Egypt, while lawlessness prevailed in
cities like Suez and Alexandria.
Different members of the opposition, including Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed
ElBaradei, took to the streets with the masses in Tahrir Square, calling on
Mubarak to "resign immediately". Some, like Amr Mousa, the Arab League secretary
general whose term is about to expire, expressed a desire to run for office to
Heavyweight symbols of the regime, like his son Gamal (reportedly now in London)
and Safwat al-Sharif of the NDP were hauntingly silent and nowhere to be seen.
Allies of the regime, like world-famous Egyptian comedian Adel Imam - the
Charlie Chaplin of Egypt - quickly retracted earlier statements in favor of
Mubarak. Imam, who had earlier denounced the demonstrators as hoodlums, was now
saying: "I only wish I had gone to the streets with the people of Egypt!"
The Egyptian armed forces came out on Tuesday with a rare public statement of
support for the demonstrators, saying that their demands were "legitimate". Some
of the soldiers stationed in Cairo wrote the words "Down with Mubarak" on their
tanks and did not attempt to hide it when they were filmed by Arabic TV networks
covering the upheaval in Cairo.
The two sons of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, Khaled and Abdul
Hakim, took to the streets with the demonstrators who chanted "Nasser, Nasser"
carrying photographs of the second president of Egypt, who is still popular
among Egyptians and is hailed throughout the Arab world as the "godfather of
It is unclear whether Mubarak's aids and family let him watch the footage
beaming through al-Jazeera TV, of Egyptian demonstrators calling for his head,
asking that he be arrested and brought to trial for hijacking the Egyptian
nation for 30 long years. His predecessor in power King Farouk reportedly only
agreed to abdicate in July 1952 when he saw the demonstrations with his own
eyes, with people chanting "Down with the king!"
It is unclear if Mubarak was physically able to follow up on the details of what
was happening all over Egypt - how his security apparatus fired bullets, and
killed, unarmed demonstrators or how they shut down Facebook, Twitter, and
eventually the entire Egyptian Internet.
It is highly probable however, that Mubarak did not care and only had one thing
on his mind: saving his neck and staying in power until curtain fall. Usually in
similar cases of revolution, leaders become detached from reality, often tricked
into believing by their immediate circle, that all was not lost and power could
still be maintained.
That is what happened to Syrian president Adib al-Shishakli in 1954 and Shah
Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1979. It also happened to King Farouk in 1952. That is
what happened to Saddam Hussein in March 2003, although at the time it was no
revolution but an invasion by United States occupation forces.
Mubarak saw none of that, but was more fixated on the often conflicting messages
he was getting from the outside world. Israel was the first to make it clear: it
did not want the Mubarak regime to collapse because he had done the Zionist
state a great service by protecting the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
In the United States, things were not so clear. Vice President Joseph Biden
saying in Mubarak's defense that the Egyptian president "was no dictator".
President Barack Obama came out differently on Tuesday, however, saying: "What
is clear and what I indicated to President Mubarak is my believe that an orderly
transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."
Obama added, "To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I
want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will
determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your
children and your grandchildren."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, another formerly staunch Mubarak ally, called
for "a concrete transition process" that "starts without delay in response to a
desire for change". German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle added, "People [in
Egypt] want democratic change and they want it now. It must be a change towards
democracy not a change that begins sometime [in the future] but one which begins
now." Great Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron had similar words and so did
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said, "People expect Mubarak to
take a much different step ... the current administration fails to give
confidence for beginning an atmosphere of democracy within a short period of
All of those statements were very unencouraging to Mubarak. He fully understands
that with no Western cover, his chances of saying in power are close to zero,
given that he is and always has been, a very unpopular president. Two weeks ago,
the man was seriously thinking of running for office against next September, at
the advanced age of 83, regardless of all the outspoken anger on the streets of
Egypt, heard strongly for the past decade.
The only other scenario that appealed to him was appointing his son Gamal
president during his own lifetime. Now the reasoning is: he wants to stay in
power only until September, claiming that he never wanted power in the first
place. That is hard to believe from a president who actually came to power by
accident - neither through ballots nor through a coup but rather, by having been
appointed vice president to Anwar al-Sadat in 1975. He happened to be at the job
when Sadat was killed by Islamic extremists in October 1981 and has fiercely
held onto power ever since, for 30 years.
What Mubarak was telling the world on February 1 was that he wants a dignified
exodus from the presidency, at any cost. Perhaps what he had in mind was
something similar to what happened to Farouk 59 years ago, when the young king
was escorted from the royal palace with full honors, men in uniform surrounding
him, and 21-gun salutes. As he boarded his ship, the Mahrousa, headed for a life
in exile in Europe, officers headed by General Mohammad Najib, saluted him as
commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Such a scenario, Mubarak failed to realize, is close to impossible, given
Western disappointment with his regime, the anger on the Egyptian streets, and
the momentum created by the revolution in Tunisia. His only concession, for now,
is that he will not run for another term, while the demonstrators should meet
him halfway, he believes, and allow him to maintain what remains of his term.
He failed to digest the statements coming in from the West and the reason why
his regime was maintained and protected by the United States for far too long.
It was not because he was such a great and popular president. Nor was it for his
military skills or grand achievements. The West betted on Mubarak because of two
1. He was able to strike with an iron fist at Egyptian Islamists and keep them
at bay, especially after 9/11.
2. He was able to use his massive security apparatus to maintain and protect the
Camp David Accords of 1978.
Today, Mubarak can no longer deliver on "any of the above" and simply, has to
make way for somebody who can.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst and editor-in-chief of Forward