Mubarak transfers powers to Suleiman, but it's only a start
The question that lingers in Tahrir Square after Mubarak's speech: What next? The only thing that is certain is that Egypt will never be the same again.
It is doubtful if at this point it is possible to predict even a fraction of the implications of this incredible event in Middle East history. A president, in the largest and strongest country in the region, which has a peace treaty with the State of Israel, transferred all of his powers to his vice-president and in effect vacated his position because of pressure from the masses.
In less than a month, another revolution forces a Middle Eastern president to end his term of power. The masses in Tahrir Square and the streets of Alexandria did this in the last few days with almost no violence (outbreaks of violence occurred in smaller, more peripheral cities), using the most democratic methods possible – street demonstrations, strikes, and eventually, bringing the country's economic activity to a standstill.
But despite the legitimate protests, the big question that still lingers over Tahrir Square even after Mubarak's speech: What next?
Israeli nightmare scenarios notwithstanding, Hosni Mubarak finished his career after 30 years without a violent revolution or assassination attempt by Egyptian Islamists. Mubarak is stepping down from the position of president because of popular protests that stirred the excitement of millions of young people.
Most of these young people are secular and educated, protesting the poor economy – the poverty, the unemployment, the lack of a future, the government corruption, the bureaucracy, and especially a dictator that ruled the country with an iron fist, crushing democracy and human rights.
From the very beginning of the demonstrations on January 25 until minutes before Mubarak's speech on Thursday night, the demonstrators demanded the ouster of the president again and again . They stood there Thursday night, joyous, content, almost euphoric in the wake of their accomplishment of forcing the transfer of powers from the hands of the Egyptian Ra'is to his vice-president Omar Suleiman.
All of the violence tactics that were used against the protesters in the last 17 days, the arrests, the torturing, the executions, and even the thousands of thugs that were sent to frighten the masses, did not scare them from the streets. Day after day they returned to the square, while thousands of others set up a tent city on the spot and chose to sleep there.
President Mubarak and his Vice-President Suleiman tried every trick in the book. They conducted negotiations with representatives of the opposition, they fired the cabinet, they replaced the party leadership, announced that Mubarak's son Gamal would not succeed him, and offered an abundance of reforms.
But the masses were not prepared to compromise. While representatives of many opposition parties, even of the Muslim Brotherhood, conducted talks with Suleiman at the beginning of the week, tens of thousands of Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square refused to accept the compromises offered and continued to call for Mubarak's head.
At the beginning of the week it seemed as if Mubarak and Suleiman had succeeded in weakening and fracturing the opposition. It had no leadership, and certainly no leader. On Sunday and Monday there was even a drop in the number of participants in the demonstrations, and some suspected that the protests would peter out slowly.
But in spite of these expectations, by Tuesday hundreds of thousands returned and it was clear that demonstrations were nowhere near over.
So why did Mubarak end his war of attrition with the protesters and transfer his powers? It wasn't only American pressure on the Egyptian government to institute reforms, or the economic harm being caused to the Egyptian tourist industry that was adding up.
Apparently it was the government workers that decided to hold a workers' strike and join the demonstrations. Thousands of workers in key corporations like the Suez Canal Authority, the Suez Steel company and of course thousands of government office workers (including the state-run media) joined the great festival in the square on Tuesday, preventing the state from continuing to function as a political entity.
Suleiman, Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi and other army leaders understood that in order for life to return to normal, they must make a symbolic sacrifice of Mubarak himself – who in any case is sick with cancer and had already declared that he has no intention of running again in the upcoming elections.
So what's next? It's hard to say. First, it's not certain what the Tahrir Square protesters will do. Will they be satisfied with the transfer of responsibilities from Mubarak to Suleiman, or perhaps they will stay in central Cairo until the emergency laws are repealed or the constitution is amended, or maybe they will even continue to protest later today?
Many of the protestors that spoke with journalists in the square on Thursday night already made it clear that the transfer of power is not enough, and that only Mubarak's departure will satisfy them.
In the event that the demonstrators stay, how will the army respond? Will it instruct its people to disperse the crowd of demonstrators, after it supposedly just achieved such an amazing accomplishment? In any case, we can assume that the number of demonstrators will decrease after yesterday's announcement.
It is also unclear what the intermediary period will look like for Egypt: what kind of regime will carry out the tasks of government? Will the government that was only appointed a week and a half ago with Ahmed Shafiq at the helm continue to rule, or will a caretaker government be appointed?
And what kind of reciprocal relationship will Suleiman have with Egyptian army commanders? Suleiman is a soldier, and the Egyptian security forces know him well from his days as chief of army intelligence. It would seem that cooperation between the two will be critical in facing this great challenge.
There is another question regarding the contacts between representatives of the regime and opposition figures; will they manage to agree on a timetable for elections for the presidency and the parliament, on required changes to the constitution, on the removal of restrictions on journalists, etc.
And of course, the big question that is worrying the Israeli public, on the assumption that the Egyptian army and opposition parties manage to agree on elections, what will be the results and how successful will the Muslim Brotherhood be, after they joined the protests but were nowhere near responsible for their organization.
The Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it will not field a candidate for president. In light of this announcement, it is speculated that they will support Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but that is just a guess.
A survey conducted in the last few days by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy revealed that in a presidential race, ElBaradei is relatively unpopular (3%), while 25% of respondents said they would vote for Amr Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League. Suleiman could receive 16-17% of the vote.
In elections for the Egyptian parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to receive 15% of the vote. However, that figure will only improve after people's fear of the regime continues to dissipate. Additionally, another factor that is unclear in this equation is, what kinds of political parties will stand for election, and how many will there be?
Too much competition between the new secular political parties will only help the Muslim Brotherhood, turning them into one of, if not the biggest parties in the parliament. In any case, their power will be significantly greater than it was until now.
And what about Mubarak? It seems as though he will take a trip down to Sharm El-Sheikh, and from there continue on to Germany to continue his treatments for cancer. One thing that is abundantly clear, because and despite of all these uncertainties, is that Egypt will never be the same without him.
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