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EGYPT: Endgame Approaches for Mubarak

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Jan 29 2011 (IPS) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak named a vice-president and agreed to form a new government, but protesters calling for Mubarak’s removal said that they would not let up until the 83-year-old “Pharaoh” stepped down.

“There is only one acceptable solution, and that is for Mubarak to go,” says Khaled Mahmoud, an unemployed engineer. “It’s too late for compromises – he’s had 30 years.”

State television announced on Saturday evening that Mubarak had nominated intelligence chief Omar Soliman as his vice-president. It was the first time for Mubarak to name a vice-president and possible successor since coming to office in 1981.

Mubarak also assigned civil aviation minister Ahmed Shafik to form a new government. Shafik replaces Ahmed Nazif, who has served as prime minister since 2004.

The new appointments aim at defusing the anger on the Egyptian streets. Anti-government demonstrations that began Jan. 25 have drawn hundreds of thousands of supporters. Dozens of Egyptians have been killed, and hundreds wounded, in clashes between security forces and protesters.

Hassan Nafaa, political science professor at Cairo University, says the present administrative changes suggest Mubarak is aware of his deteriorating political power.

“Mubarak is trying to get out of the situation and avert a popular revolution, but it is already too late…the popular revolution has begun,” Nafaa told IPS. “Unless he takes a decision to step down, anything else will be futile.”

Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is reported to be in a shambles. Many of the party’s leaders have resigned or fled the country. The headquarters has been burnt to the ground by angry mobs.

Protesters also appear to have blunted the president’s iron fist. Egypt’s Central Security Forces, vital to suppressing unrest, are licking their wounds from fierce clashes with demonstrators. Police fled their posts after they were attacked.

The army has mobilized, and controls strategic junctions in the major cities, but shows no sign of interfering with the protesters. Its main role so far has been to control looting.

“Egyptian people love the army,” says Mahmoud. “The army will not shoot us; they are here to protect us and will not answer to Mubarak.”

Demonstrators had hoped the president would set a timetable for stepping down during an evening address broadcast on state television on Friday. Instead, he vowed to form a new cabinet and admonished “troublemakers” for exploiting the demonstrations for political gain.

“If Mubarak had just said that he wouldn’t run again in the next presidential election (scheduled for September), half the people would have been satisfied with that,” says Mohamed Ibrahim, an Internet café owner. “The other half want him out now, but maybe they can be persuaded.”

The appointment of a vice-president paves the way for succession but Egyptians appear unwilling to accept Soliman, even if only as a transitional caretaker.

“The vice-president and prime minister that Mubarak nominated are his close friends, and the decision is perceived merely as a way to protect his own authority,” says Nafaa. “More importantly, there was no delegation of power.”

The Egyptian protests were inspired by the popular uprising that toppled Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month. Yet the Tunisian experience has also shown the governance problems of toppled dictatorships.

“The general sentiment is that there has to be a managed transition,” says Dina Shehata, political analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a state-run think tank. “The idea of a coalition government like the one that took power in Tunisia does not seem likely. It’s more conceivable that a military oriented government will take over.”

Nafaa agrees that the regime’s sudden collapse would create a very dangerous situation, pointing to the widespread looting already reported across the country, as well as simmering sectarian tensions.

“If we don’t have a smooth transition, you have chaos,” he says. “Mubarak could arrange to step down without leaving a power vacuum that could collapse the state, but he seems to want to stay on till the very end.”

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