By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 12:41 AM
CAIRO - For three decades, President Hosni Mubarak has relied heavily on a robust, repressive security force to ensure his rule. The unapologetic message he delivered on state television early Saturday gave no sign that he was shifting course.
He clung instead to the formula that has sustained him again and again since he inherited power in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The time-tested Mubarak approach has been to shift blame, usually to Egypt's shell of a government, while portraying his heavy-handed regime as a bulwark against chaos.
But after a day that saw Egypt's riot police overwhelmed, forcing Mubarak to turn to the armed forces to try to reimpose order, it was not at all clear that the former air force officer could withstand a challenge from unprecedented crowds who have demanded above all else that he step down.
Until now, Egypt's middle and upper classes have largely agreed with Mubarak "that the alternative to the regime was something much more dangerous,'' said Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.
"But now there's a huge generation, or maybe two generations, brought up under Mubarak for whom the language of security has not delivered," Fahmy said.
A privileged and respected elite in Egypt, the armed forces have always been the backbone of power for Mubarak, who at 82 is battling an unknown illness but still cultivates jet-black hair intended to project youthful vigor. There was no indication that leading officers would abandon a leader to whom they owe their comfortable salaries and housing.
But the protesters' cheers that greeted the military vehicles rolling into Cairo and Alexandria on Friday clearly suggested a hope from Mubarak's opponents that the military this time would choose to side with the people.
"The question mark in my mind is, what are the generals doing?" said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Are they saying: We want to protect our prerogatives, but we are prepared to jettison Hosni Mubarak? That we don't know. That's what happened in Tunisia."
A conservative and cautious leader, Mubarak has proved a reliable American ally, winning him deference from successive U.S. presidents who have praised him as a partner in the quest for a broader peace in the Middle East. He has charmed generations of U.S. envoys with his rough-hewn humor and passion for squash, soccer and other sports.
But he has never appointed a vice president, reflecting a determination to remain Egypt's unchallenged leader, and he has never hesitated to use force to beat back challenges to his rule.
After inheriting power in 1981, Mubarak initially took steps to appear moderate, including releasing political prisoners and allowing a modicum of press freedom. But a wave of Islamist attacks in the 1990s prompted a fierce response from the security forces, leaving reforms stalled.
Since then, Mubarak has routinely defied the international community's call for greater openness. He has continued to rule under an emergency law that for decades has curtailed constitutional freedoms, and he has kept in place a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that has long been Egypt's most powerful opposition force.
In 2005, when demonstrators protested during a constitutional referendum, security forces brutally suppressed protesters in what became known as "Black Wednesday."
In June, police kicked a young blogger to death in an Internet cafe for not turning over his identity papers.
Estimates of the size of Egypt's domestic security services, which include the police, riot police and numerous intelligence services, vary widely from 300,000 to 2 million. The military is estimated to number 340,000.
Beyond that vast security apparatus, Mubarak has relied for support on a bloated civil service of roughly 5 million workers who depend on him for government jobs. But his traditional base of laborers, hard-hit by economic reform, have abandoned him and taken to the streets.
Despite concerns about Mubarak's health, it had appeared likely until this week that he would seek a sixth term in presidential elections scheduled for this fall. For years, many Egyptians have suggested that they were resigned to the prospect that Mubarak would become president for life, or that he would somehow pass power to his son, as other Arab leaders have done.
But this week's shouts from protesters, chanting, "Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate you," showed how unlikely that scenario now appears.