Can Hosni hang on?

Can Hosni hang on?

With the announcement today of his new cabinet, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak all but confirmed that he sees the current unrest sweeping across his country primarily as a security matter, not an issue that demands political reform.

Let’s look at his appointments. His new vice president is Omar Suleiman, his longtime spy chief, a man distinguished by his unstinting loyalty to the boss. The new prime minister is Ahmed Shafiq, an Air Force veteran who previously ran the civil aviation ministry. The new interior minister, retired police general Mahmoud Wagdy, last ran Egypt’s vast prison system. This is not a government of reformers.

In fact, the reformers — Ahmed Nazif, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Youssef Boutros-Ghali — won’t be in the new government. Although Al Arabiya reported that the latter two ministers refused to join, it’s also possible that Mubarak wanted to send a signal that he blamed their economic liberalization policies for stirring up unrest.

What’s clear is that Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was close to the technocrats and was widely thought to have been angling for the presidency, is finished in Egyptian politics. Nobody has seen him for days, and there are rumors that he’s fled to London along with his mother Suzanne and brother Alaa.

The other half of Mubarak’s strategy is to scare Egypt’s upper and middle classes into demanding a return of stability. On Friday, police forces mysteriously disappeared and thousands of prisoners suddenly escaped from several facilities. Reports of chaos and looting in the streets dominated state television, while the army did little to provide security beyond protecting government buildings. Neighborhoods have set up local watch groups, grabbing makeshift weapons like kitchen knives, baseball bats, and even, I saw in one report, lacrosse sticks.

Will it work? I doubt it. Mubarak’s legitimacy seems utterly depleted. Ordinarily, the regime would stage counterdemonstrations to show that it still has support. On Sunday, a host on Al Jazeera English challenged Mohamed Ragab, a backbencher from the ruling party, to back up his claim that "millions and millions" of Egyptians still support Mubarak. He couldn’t do it.

The opposition has called for a million-man show of strength in downtown Cairo Tuesday, while the regime has shut down the train system in what looks like a desperate attempt to deny the protesters reinforcements. But Cairo is a city of 20 million people, many of whom are already defying the military’s half-hearted attempts to enforce a 3 p.m. curfew tonight. Tomorrow’s demonstrations could be truly huge.

Hosni may indeed limp along for a little while longer. But I doubt anyone is betting that he’ll be there for the long haul.

UPDATE: The Egyptian army has issued an unusual statement saying it "will not resort to use of force against our great people."

"Your armed forces," the statement continued, "who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."

A lot of people are interpreting this as the army signaling that it is with the protesters and against Mubarak. I think that may be premature, but only slightly. Suleiman just appeared on television and said the government would take a look at complaints about last fall’s parliamentary elections — another attempt to buy off more moderate demonstrators (and rather meaningless as most of the problems came in runoff elections between "official" NDP candidates and "unofficial" NDP candidates). Meanwhile, both the EU and the United States are now calling for a "transition" — i.e. goodbye Hosni. But he’s a stubborn old man. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.