Fear and disbelief: analysts react to Mubarak speech

A roundup of reaction in the media to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's highly anticipated speech, which ultimately disappointed those hoping he would step down.
Opposition supporters wait for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's national address in Cairo's Tahrir Square Thursday night. When it came, the speech was a bitter disappointment to all those who have spent more than two weeks calling for Mubarak's resignation. ((Goran Tomasevic/Reuters))
"He doesn't get it."

That was the sentiment that dominated analysts' reaction in the media Thursday to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's stubborn refusal to step down despite more than two weeks of popular protests calling for him to do just that.

"He doesn’t realize his own person is the problem," Mounir Abdel Nour, secretary general of the opposition Wafd Party, told CBC Radio's As it Happens on Thursday evening following Mubarak's highly anticipated speech. It left the thousands of protesters who had gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square in anticipation of his resignation stunned and furious.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak addresses the nation in this still image taken from video February 10, 2011. ((Egyptian State TV/Reuters))
Late Thursday afternoon the military issued a statement telling protesters their demands would be met, but Mubarak's speech a few hours later made it clear they would not be. Abdel Nour speculated that the about-face was a power struggle between the armed forces and newly appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman and other political forces trying to negotiate Mubarak's exit.

Opinion seemed to be unanimous that Mubarak's vague promise to delegate some presidential powers to Suleiman — but not step aside definitively until the September elections — would be met with more chaos and violent confrontations in the coming days.

"The only way to stop the demonstrations, to have the youth go back home and work, is that Mr. Mubarak leaves," Abdel Nour said.

Many commentators speculated that protesters would move their demonstrations to the presidential palace in Cairo's Heliopolis neighbourhood and that they would amp up not just the scale of their protests but also their rage against the regime.

The next 24 hours would be the "most dangerous" yet of the more than two-week-long uprising, predicted BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

"Tomorrow will be a bloody day for all Egyptians," agreed Mahmoud Sabra, a former official in Mubarak's government and a UN consultant, speaking to the CBC's Mark Kelley. "The people will go beyond all barriers, all limits."

One of the most re-tweeted Tweets of the day was one sent by Mohamed ElBaradei shortly after Mubarak's speech. "Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now," posted the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is considered a leading contender to replace Mubarak.

Speech 'insulting' to Egyptians

The consensus seemed to be that Mubarak's refusal to resign, and to instead offer the protesters so much less than they've been demanding, was a combination of dictatorial delusion and spite.

"Standing there in Tahrir Square and listening with the crowd to the address … I was so disappointed, and it was insulting to the Egyptian intelligence," Dr. Musheera Hannah, a doctor in Cairo who has been participating in the protests, told As it Happens.

"The man is not really grabbing power. He is not hanging onto anything at all except, of course, his huge wealth — that everybody can't help but wonder where it came from — and also the fact that the moment his immunity is lifted ... he would come under investigation."

Mubarak offered little more in his speech Thursday than vague promises to deligate power to his newly appointed vice-president, make some constitutional changes and lift the country's hated state-of-emergency law some time in the future.

Although many analysts were hesitant to speculate on how the political stalemate would play out, all agreed that it will be the actions of the military that determine what happens next.

As one of the few remaining institutions with credibility, the military will set the tone in the next critical hours and days, said Peter Jones, University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"The military is the key to this in terms of a soft landing, if we are to get a soft landing," he told the CBC's Power and Politics.

The BBC's Paul Adams reported that protesters received text messages from army officials saying they were monitoring events and would decide how to act — a small indication of just how much influence the military has.

The predicted escalation of protests in the coming days will test the army's professed loyalty to the protesters, said Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Hundreds of thousands of protesters moving through Cairo would really test the army," she told the BBC.

Army will set political course

Beyond the short term, many believe it will also be the military that sets Egypt's future political course.

"The military looms larger than any other actor [in Egyptian society]," said Robert Springborg, professor of national security affairs at the California-based Naval Postgraduate School, on CBC Radio's Dispatches.

The U.S. has been a long-time ally of the Mubarak government, but in the face of Egyptian protests, American President Barack Obama has taken the view that Mubarak must go.

He predicted the army would clamp down and get tougher with protesters and use a transitional figure such as Suleiman as a "veil of civilian governance" to disguise its role in any future government, as it has done for decades.

Writing in the New York Times —  in an opinion piece headlined "The Pharaoh Refuses To Go" — Nicholas Kristof agreed.

"Senior generals have a huge stake in continuing the existing system," he wrote. "And at this point, Mubarak is becoming an obstacle to their retaining their privileges."

Kristof also urged the United States to align itself more firmly with the protesters.

"We’ve been too wishy-washy, and we’ve been perceived as supporting a slow and gradual transition under Suleiman — rather than siding with democracy," he wrote.

The implications of Mubarak's decision to stay on are huge not just for the U.S. but for countries throughout the region and beyond, commentators agreed.

"The region is on tenterhooks," Clifford May of the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies said on CBC's Power and Politics.

Fear that mounting anger in Egypt will spill beyond its borders is especially acute in Saudi Arabia, May and others pointed out, stressing that what happens in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, has huge implications for the globe. 

"If something happens in Saudi Arabia, all the rest of us are going to be out of our cars; our economy is going to come to a dead stop," warned Springborg. "So, we’re flirting with a hugely dangerous situation here."