WASHINGTON– Finally the signs of a tipping point in Cairo? Maybe, notwithstanding very confusing developments that may tell us otherwise. Indeed, after a day of rumors on Thursday whereby President Hosni Mubarak would go on Egyptian national TV to announce his resignation, what he actually said in the context of a a rambling speech is that he delegated authority to his hand picked Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of intelligence services. The word “resignation” did not appear in his address.
What did Mubarak say?
And so, right after the speech commentators tried to interpret what Mubarak actually said and what the sentence about “delegation of power” really means. Is it all power? Not clear. Finally, the Egyptian Ambassador to the US, Sameh Shoukry, called into CNN stating that Mubarak delegated “all presidential powers” to Omar Suleiman except three critical ones that now reside in…well, he could not say. He could also not say whether this delegation of power is final or reversible. So, in this confusion, we are told that Mubarak, while de jure still President, has effectively delegated all presidential powers to his Vice President who, for all practical purposes, should now be regarded as Egypt’s new leader.
Vice President and military take over
Other developments may indicate that real change, connected to the power transfer indicated by Mubarak, is already underway. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces met on Thursday and was chaired by Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, and not by President Mubarak, as protocol would dictate. Most interestingly, conciliatory language about “the just demands” of the people was included in Supreme Council “Communique N. 1″. Is this “Communique N. 1″ the first action of the new de facto policy making body of the post-Mubarak era? Be that as it may, this shifting of the power center, while significant, provides no clear indication as to which way the military intends to lead this process.
Regime in disarray
On a different level, the fact that hours after a critical presidential address analysts were still scratching their heads trying to understand exactly what is it that Mubarak said provides a measure of the disarray within the regime. Meanwhile though, the Tahrir Square crowds who were hoping to hear from Mubarak that he had resigned were deeply disappointed and quite angry. They did not get the “victory” they were expecting. The old “Pharaoh”, in a fashion, is still there.
Crowds disappointed but still alive
While a symbolic and practical setback for the protesters, nonetheless there is no sign that the military and the large security apparatus of the regime is gearing up to force an end to this vast rebellion through the use of force. More demonstrations are planned for Friday, after prayers. A crackdown may indeed happen, but there is no indication thus far. On the contrary, military leaders who recently spoke to the demonstrators used conciliatory language and even praised the mostly young protesters.
Protest movement advancing
But beyond this important, if fuzzy, power shuffle signalling Mubarak’s exit, other developments would encourage thinking about a tipping point in Egypt. Instead of waning, the national protest is still very vibrant. Indeed, in the last few days there has been a significant broadening of the anti-regime movement to include workers in a variety of sectors in different cities. And to this labor unrest we have to add groups of professionals, including actors, doctors and lawyers, joining the demonstrations.
Thus, a Cairo based, youth-led rebellion is beginning to look more like a broader national upheaval. The military, probably now the real ruler of the country, may soon come to the realization that it can neither tame nor easily crush this movement. It may very well come to the conclusion that, given the magnitude and strength of this opposition, it will have to make real, as opposed to cosmetic concessions.
Labor protests further weakened the regime
I previously indicated that the regime did not seem to be negotiating in good faith, that most likely the leaders were hoping to outlast the protesters, while encouraging divisions among them. And probably this is still their goal.
However, what has changed in the last couple of days is that their bargaining position deteriorated. Instead of receding, the protest has broadened to include labor issues and a variety of wage increase and economic demands. While not necessarily tied to the initial goals of political reforms, in practice these strikes and other actions amount to the swelling of the opposition front and thus a huge additional complication for the authorities who may now fear that the protracted unheaval might morph into a revolution.
What remains to be seen, with Mubarak receding into the background, is whether genuine negotiations leading to a real transition to democracy will gain momentum and credibility. This is by no means a sure thing. However, at this stage, given the swelling of the opposition front, even if reluctantly the regime may have to seriously contemplate steps leading to its own retreat –if not outright eventual demise.
This is not a done deal, of course, as the protest movement, even if remarkably resilient, is still leaderless and disorganized when it comes to articulating a clear reform program and milestones, let alone, even assuming free and fair elections, an implementation timetable. As it has been said, it is pretty clear what the protesters are against. What they are for, beyond generalities about democracy, and how they can get from here to there is another matter.
Will the military lead an honest process?
It is true that the regime still has the monopoly of force and thus the ability to resist change. However, if the urban protesters can successfully link up with workers across the country and bring Egypt to a standstill, then we can have a real shift. Ultimately, it will come down to the same military. Does the army want to crush this national uprising through violence, or is it willing to take responsibility and honestly lead the country in a process toward genuine change?