CAIRO - President
Hosni Mubarak has a fondness for ancient Roman maxims. For three decades, "Bread and circuses" has been his motto, and it has formed the bedrock of the social contract that has glued Egypt together for all this time. In return for bread - and it was literally bread, with state-run bakeries supplying the staple at hugely subsidized prices - Egyptians put up with the lack of free speech, an absence of free elections and human-rights violations that characterized the government.
On Tuesday night, in his televised speech to the nation after a week of escalating street protests calling for him to step down, a defiant Mubarak, 83, showed that he is fond of another of the
caesars' guidelines for successful tyranny: Divide and conquer.
By ruling both himself and his son Gamal out of elections scheduled for September, Mubarak has lobbed a grenade into the hitherto unified ranks of the mass movement that is the opposition. Will the opposition be able to lob it back before it destroys the unity that has made it so powerful, as Egyptian youths have been doing with tear gas canisters all week? Or is Mubarak's final gamble going to keep the wily dictator in some kind of power?
There is an understandable tendency to personify the government, to blame Mubarak himself for all that's gone wrong. But Mubarak does not operate alone; hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egyptians are directly implicated in his regime. From the security chiefs, the cabinet and the members of parliament to civil service bureaucrats, businessmen, local government heads, police officers and informers, a large chunk of the population stands to lose everything if Mubarak is comprehensively overthrown. With him would go the source of all their power, be it great or petty.
So Mubarak's speech was to a large extent aimed at these people. An orderly, slow transition is likely to give them a measure of protection, involving as it inevitably will a unity government and processes of reconciliation. The speech was his last chance to protect the people who have kept him in power for so long. It's almost noble.
Almost, but not quite. A lot can happen between now and September, especially given how the country has changed in just a week.
If Mubarak does get to oversee the transition, the protesters are unlikely to receive the kind of revolutionary overhaul of the government they are looking for, but it would give Mubarak, and those around him, plenty of time to plan for their future and tweak the processes to make sure they keep some power.
Assuming the protests die down and the country returns to some semblance of normality, the ruling National Democratic Party is by far the most organized and influential political institution in the country (notwithstanding a few burned headquarters). It would run in any fresh elections, perhaps under another name, and its candidates would have access to a well-oiled political machine and some residual support from those who need the "good" old days to continue. And Mubarak will be in the shadows; his tenacity should never be underestimated.
As for the opposition, although it is multi-faceted and rather nebulous, two broad strands can be identified. On the one hand, there is the Muslim Brotherhood - well organized, popular and not nearly as dangerous as Western media and the United States would like us to believe. It has the most to lose if Mubarak stays until September. He doesn't like the Brotherhood and will do all in his power to sideline it.
More importantly, the US doesn't like it, and while dangling its US$1.6 billion aid package, the US will be the most important external player in determining what the next constitution looks like and how elections are run. As Hamas found out in Palestine, democratic expression is less important to the US State Department than keeping "terrorist groups" at bay.
The other strand of the Egyptian opposition is a lot more difficult to pin down. Roughly comprised of young, middle class, tech-savvy students and professionals, and semi-formalized under the banner of the Kifaya ("Enough") movement, it also includes the bits and pieces of the formal opposition that has managed to survive Mubarak.
ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2005 and a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has emerged the key spokesperson for this group, although support for him is not wholehearted; nonetheless, he is the only unifying leadership figure, with even the Muslim Brotherhood agreeing to back him - so far.
His take on Mubarak's speech will be critical; it would not be a surprise if ElBaradei, seasoned diplomat that he is, can see the benefits of a measured and orderly transition. It's a position that's unlikely to please his younger followers, but he might see it as the sensible option.
So for the first time since the protests began, the opposition finds itself in a real dilemma. Mubarak's concession, for what it's worth, has forced it to consider a more nuanced political position than simply "Mubarak out". The unity of what is ultimately a fragile coalition of unlikely partners has been a defining feature of the protests; this is now under threat.
Simon Allison is a Master's graduate of the London School of African and Oriental Studies; he has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East. His blog can be found here.