Hosni Mubarak offers Egyptians far less than they demand

Crowds of Egyptians erupted in chants after President Hosni Mubarak said he is transferring power to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, but will not leave the country. (Feb. 10)
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 8:47 PM

EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak attempted again on Thursday to deflect his country's swelling popular revolution with cosmetic concessions and empty promises. He said he was delegating powers to his handpicked vice president, offered unspecified changes to a handful of constitutional amendments and expressed regret over the hundreds of protesters killed by his security forces. Minutes later, Vice President Omar Suleiman followed him onto national television and brusquely told the huge crowd gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to go home.

The message conveyed by the two aged leaders was that they still intend to cling to power, minimize concessions and control the choice of Mr. Mubarak's successor in September. For much of the past two weeks that scheme looked at least potentially feasible. Against the backdrop of Thursday's mass mobilization in Cairo and the unrest spreading around the country, it appeared delusional.

The president's recalcitrance was particularly infuriating to Egyptians, and puzzling to outsiders, because it came at the end of a day in which the regime's spokesmen had hinted at far more consequential change. A highly unusual communique from the military spoke of "remain[ing] in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation," which some took as the announcement of a coup. The new secretary general of Mr. Mubarak's own ruling party said he expected him to step down. So did CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Egypt's ambassador to the United States later told CNN that Mr. Suleiman had, de facto, taken over from Mr. Mubarak. But given the vice president's statements in recent days, that was hardly reassuring. Mr. Suleiman has said Egypt is not ready for democracy and has blamed the protests on foreign influences; on Thursday night he instructed Egyptians to stop watching foreign satellite channels. Both he and Mr. Mubarak have said a hated emergency law that is the basis of the autocracy can be lifted only when "conditions permit," which has been the position of the regime since 1981.

It's hard to judge whether Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Suleiman have the full support of the armed forces, which have not tried to disperse the crowds in the streets and may lack the capacity to do so. What is clear is that the "transition" the regime is proposing has little chance of meeting the standard set by the Obama administration, which is that it be "orderly" but also "genuine," lead to democracy and fully include the opposition. Maybe that's why Mr. Mubarak went out of his way to say he "will not accept to be dictated orders from outside."

But on Thursday night, a White House statement attributed to President Obama rightly said that "too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy." It called for a lifting of the emergency law and "meaningful negotiations with the broad opposition" and civil society aimed at "jointly developing a clear roadmap to elections that are free and fair." If that is to happen, Mr. Mubarak must truly step aside; and Mr. Suleiman must either do so or radically change his position.

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