- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
It’s hard to exaggerate how bad Hosni Mubarak’s speech today was for Egypt. In the extended runup to his remarks, every sign indicated that he planned to announce his resignation: the military’s announcement that it had taken control, the shift in state television coverage, a steady stream of leaks about the speech. With the whole world watching, Mubarak instead offered a meandering, confused speech promising vague Constitutional changes and defiance of foreign pressure. He offered a vaguely worded delegation of power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, long after everyone in Egypt had stopped listening. It is virtually impossible to conceive of a more poorly conceived or executed speech.
Omar Suleiman’s televised address which followed made things even worse, if that’s possible, telling the people to go home and blaming al-Jazeera for the problems. It solidified the already deep distrust of his role among most of the opposition and of the protestors, and tied his fate to that of Mubarak. Even potentially positive ideas in their speeches, such as Constitutional amendments, were completely drowned out by their contemptuous treatment of popular demands. Things could get ugly tonight — and if things don’t explode now, then the crowds tomorrow will be absolutely massive. Whatever happens, for better or for worse, the prospects of an orderly, negotiated transition led by Omar Suleiman have just plummeted sharply.
I don’t think anyone really knows how things will break in the next 12-36 hours. It seems pretty clear that most people, from the Obama administration to Egyptian government and opposition leaders, expected Mubarak to announce his departure tonight — and that they had good reasons to believe that. That turned out to be wrong. As I just mentioned on the BBC, I don’t think anybody knows what’s going on inside Mubarak’s head right now, though he certainly seems out of touch with what is really going on. I suspect that his decision may have changed from earlier in the day, and that people inside the Egyptian military and regime are themselves scrambling to figure out their next move. If the military has any plans to step in this would be a good time — especially after the military’s communique #1 seemed to suggest that it was breaking in the other direction.
Obama doesn’t have a lot of great options right now. Its policy of steadily mounting private and public pressure to force Mubarak to leave, and for his successor to begin a meaningful transition to real democratic change, seems to have almost worked. But for now seems to have foundered on Mubarak’s obstinance. The administration, which is conferring even as I wrote this, can’t be silent in the face of Mubarak and Suleiman’s disastrous decision. It needs to continue to pound on its message that it demands that a real transition begin immediately, and to do whatever it can to make that happen now… even if its leverage remains limited. It should express its sharp disappointment with what it heard today, and continue to push the military to avoid using violence in the tense hours to come. Mubarak’s speech today, with its frequent references to foreign pressure, poses a direct challenge to Obama (and also suggests how much pressure he was in fact receiving). Those who are suggesting that Obama wanted Mubarak to stay are nuts. Now it’s time to double down on the push for an orderly transition to real democracy before it’s too late — and that is now.
UPDATE, 9:30pm: The Cable has posted the full text of President Obama’s statement following the Mubarak speech. It is a strong statement: "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity. " The calls to restrain violence and listen to the voice of the Egyptian people are also important. Let’s hope that the message gets through before things get (more) out of control.