During his highly anticipated speech late on the night of February 9 rejecting the demands of the protesters, Husni Mubarak at one point said Egyptians are in a ditch. That was the only part of his address on which Egyptians can agree. With millions of people crowding into and now overflowing beyond the Midan al-Tahrir and with strikes spreading across the capital and the industrial cities of the Egyptian delta, the country is indeed in a deep hole and President Mubarak did not extend the necessary hand to pull it out.
Events in Egypt today are rare but not unprecedented. The massing of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people has occurred time and again in the period since the end of World War II. While the most common images seem to be those of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iranian revolution, and Tienanmen Square there have been other such moments as well. Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City, Santiago de Chile stand out as tragic moments in which governments used the same combination of thugs and the military to clear popular demonstrations as Egyptians now fear. People Power in the Philippines, France 1968 and the collapse of the Indonesian dictatorship are others.
There is, it seems to me, no clear lesson that the masses must win or that popular demands for change must lose. Much will clearly depend on discussions by the handful of military officers who make up the Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces and who are meeting in permanent session for the first time since the 1973 war.
The speech itself was an act of defiance. Mubarak said Egyptians were in a ditch but instead of extending his hand he (to be more colloquial than I would otherwise be) extended his finger. He limited the mandate of the committee examining constitutional changes primarily to those provisions that deal with elections. He avoided any mention of freeing political party formation, increasing the independence of the judiciary, or diminishing the centralized presidential system. He also included amending the provision that governs the emergency law but precluded actually ending emergency rule “until the time is right.”
There is a looming sense of increased uncertainty and again a sense that a major confrontation is about to occur today. Vice President Sulaiman who now may have been entrusted with the powers of the president (it’s unclear to me if Mubarak has already given them to Sulaiman or if he considered his speech to be an act of transference or if, in fact, nothing has happened), has called on the demonstrators to leave Tahrir. In response they seem to be set on doing what they didn’t do last week: taking over the presidential palace.
Not unprecedented in Egyptian history these are the biggest sustained demonstrations here since 1919 . In some ways the situation resembles 1952 in which the officer corps is prepared to take power away from an authoritarian leader connected to a small group of corrupt businessmen and is also widely perceived as the agent of foreign influence. Reports I've heard from people who have been arrested by the army suggest that the officers and men are influenced to some degree by Mubarak's claim that he has served the country and deserves to be allowed to finish out his term and complete his mission. If this is widespread in the army it certain indicates one important difference in how the armed forces and the civilians view the current crisis and may indicate that Mubarak's audience is not the mass of the Egyptian population (and certainly not foreigners) but the armed forces. Arguments that he is systematically mis-reading his audience assumes they are in Midan al-Tahrir but that may not be true at all.
There are, however, important differences. Unlike 1950s the armed forces do stand apart from politics and the soldiers as well as their officers are more educated. Unlike the 1950s there are no political parties. Unlike the 1950s this is no longer an overwhelmingly agricultural and peasant country. While in many ways the educational system has failed the aspirations of Egyptians they are better educated and more connected to the rest of the world than was the case 60 years ago. Unlike the 1950s there are no foreign troops on Egyptian soil and have been none since 1980 and none in a position to affect domestic politics since 1956. Since I primarily read the Egyptian press and have only limited access to foreign media (by accident and my choice, not because it’s unavailable) the news reports this morning that the Israeli general staff is said to be considering re-occupying the Philadelphia corridor between Gaza and Egypt is worrying. Any attack on sovereign Egyptian territory right now would be perceived, by the army and the Egyptian people, as a real threat of foreign interference and would probably bring about the rapid collapse of the movement for democracy.
There is a primary demand is for a civil state (dawlah madaniyah) which stands in opposition to the police state (dawlah bulisiya) but also the military state (dawlah askariya). That is, unlike 1952, when the parliamentary regime was seen as corrupt and ineffective, today it is authoritarianism that is seen as such. But if Egyptians have to choose they will take the military state over the police state.
Today is shaping up to be a big day.