In a sign of the protesters’ collective strength in Cairo, a visibly tired and shaken Hosni Mubarak stepped in front of the cameras for the second time to announce that he will no longer be the president after his term expires in September. For the longtime Egyptian opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd Party, this announcement is the greatest gift they could have received after being subjected to the shadows for the last thirty years. But for the protesters who had risked their lives over the past week, shouting for Mubarak’s immediate ouster, this speech was much harder to take.
Seven months may not be enough time, but it does give Mubarak and his National Democratic Party a slight chance to divide the current protests.
As demonstrations continues in Egypt’s major cities, it may be easy to forget that Egyptians have only taken to the streets for slightly over a week. They have managed to succeed in the herculean task of forcing an entrenched autocrat to relinquish the throne — something that would have been impossible to imagine months ago. But seven days is not seven months. With the exception of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, rebellions rarely sustain their strength over an extended period of time. People have to be extremely dedicated to their cause to come out, in full force, every single day. Egyptians have passed this test so far, but you have to question whether the chants of “down with Mubarak” could remain as strong and potent for another 210 days.
By announcing his departure in September, Mubarak may be hoping that the cohesiveness of the protest movement will gradually fade. Some advisors close to the Egyptian military were expecting him to relinquish control anyway. If this is indeed the case, then some demonstrators may be wondering what it was all for.
While unsubstantiated, Mubarak may be trying to reclaim whatever legacy he has left by taking charge of the transition process, thereby ushering Egypt into a brand new era of pluralist politics. (Although it will probably take a little more time than seven months.) Few Egyptians would give him credit for such a transition, but the United States and other countries just may.
What will happen in the next seven months is still unclear. One can draw up a number of scenarios that could occur as the year goes by. If Mubarak reneges on his promise, tens of thousands may simply take to the streets once again. If democratic elections are scheduled on time and Egyptians see them as legitimate, then all is well with the world. But if the Egyptian Armed Forces somehow tweak the electoral proceedings in the hopes of maintaining their hold on the regime (Omar Soleiman, the new vice president, will probably be the establishment’s man), the world and more importantly the Egyptian people will begin to question the very essence of their political system. Up to now, a stubborn and power hungry Mubarak is considered the problem. Absent credible elections after Mubarak is long gone, Egyptians just may turn against the backbone of society itself — the military.
Hopefully it won’t come to that but it is a possibility. The armed forces have received an enormous amount of resources, wealth and prestige since the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Don’t expect them to give all of that away without pondering the implications.