The demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the Pharaoh in Abdeen Palace have now reached a standoff. How will it end? The answer lies with the Egyptian army.
President Hosni Mubarak has conceded that he will not run for reelection, that his son will not succeed him, and that the constitution should be amended to allow free elections. He has sacked his cabinet and replaced the executive committee of his ruling National Democratic Party with more liberal leaders. And his vice president, Omar Suleiman, has begun talks with the opposition including the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood.
These concessions are astonishing achievements for a two-week old revolt against the most authoritarian regime in the Arab world. Yet it should be clear by now that the protestors will not go home until Mubarak relinquishes all powers and leaves his palace, and Suleiman lifts emergency rule and accepts a real process of political reform that leads to free and fair elections.
With banks, schools, and offices reopening, and traffic resuming its normal chaotic routine, one might think that the crisis is on its way to resolution. And yet, the protestors remain in Tahrir Square and Mubarak remains in his palace, both of them ringed by soldiers and tanks.
The situation highlights the critical role of the Egyptian army in the resolution of the crisis. Amazingly, their guns have stayed silent but their other actions have done much to shape the course of this revolution.
Early on the generals announced that they would not fire on the demonstrators, thereby ensuring that the ranks of protestors would swell to the hundreds of thousands. The officers also declared that the demands of the protestors were “legitimate,” signaling to Mubarak that he could not rely on them to resist his ouster. Soon after, the former air force officer announced that he would not seek reelection.
The military also is controlling the ports and airports, preventing former senior officials and businessmen from fleeing the country, and jihadists from returning. In the midst of the tumult in Cairo, the army sent additional troops to Sinai, with Israeli approval, the better to control the border with Gaza.
The demonstrators remain fearful that, at a certain point, the generals will turn Tahrir Square into Tianenmen Square. But the military’s performance to date shows no sign of that intention, as long as the protestors do not attempt to march on the palace.
Vice President Suleiman declared again last weekend that force would not be used against the demonstrators. It appears that the army intends to hold the ring until a political process can achieve an agreed way forward.
At least a negotiation has begun and an agenda agreed to: constitutional amendments to allow for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, lifting the state of emergency, releasing political prisoners, and ending restrictions on freedom of expression.
All opposition parties will be represented, including the Muslim Brotherhood and a body now being hastily convened that will represent the youthful organizers of the protest movement. Also, a committee of “wise men” has been constituted to act as trustees and mediators.
But the demonstrators doubt the intentions of the palace when they see Mubarak presiding over cabinet meetings and Suleiman declaring that “there will be no ending of the regime.” And the more the government appears to stall on fundamental changes, the more restive the people grow and the more their ranks swell.
Already demonstrators have spread their protest to the parliament building and workers are beginning to strike, including at the Suez Canal. Suleiman is warning them that the regime will not tolerate civil disobedience.
Unless the palace and the people can come to terms quickly on an orderly process of transition, the army’s hand may be forced and it will have to chose sides. Will the military risk its own disintegration by ordering conscripted troops to open fire on the people? Or will the generals tell the Pharaoh that it is time for him to go?
Every indication so far suggests that the generals understand they have a historic responsibility to put their country’s — and their own — survival above that of Mubarak’s. And Mubarak is, at the end as in the beginning, a military man.
But revolutions are by nature unpredictable. The only certainty is that the army holds the key.