Who is negotiating over Egypt's future? Is President Hosni Mubarak's administration in talks with the White House, or are there negotiations between the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the regime's offered alternatives? Who has more power in these negotiations? And who in essence can conduct these negotiations?
It seems that Washington has now realized that any change that can be effected in Egypt's political system should be supervised by the existing regime under Mubarak. This is neither obvious nor a sudden flash of political genius.
Washington, which originally took the side of the protesters in Tahrir Square in an exaggerated form of correction for its stance toward the uprising in Tunisia, is now employing double talk. It is vital to institute democracy in the Middle East, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who last week was still demanding that power be transferred immediately, as her spokesperson stressed.
On the other hand, in order for democracy to be applied, the administration is now proposing that Mubarak be allowed to complete his term of office to allow him to instigate democracy.
The seeming contradiction can be overlooked given that right now there is no alternative to the president or the mechanisms which he controls.
The lack of an alternative leadership is apparent from the plethora of remarks made by public figures, journalists and representatives in the name of the demonstrators. A hastily assembled group was set up with several well-known public figures, including Prof. Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize laureate living in Los Angeles, Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, and the Copt billionaire Naguib Sawiris, as well as several other prominent figures. At the end of last week they published a "road map" with the aim of reforming the system of government on a gradual basis while holding negotiations with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's hand-picked vice president.
But when some of the representatives of the youth movements were asked whether they endorsed the talks, they replied that the group does not represent them and that no one consulted them.
The Muslim Brotherhood is prepared to conduct negotiations with Suleiman but they have several prior conditions and say they will not continue the negotiations until these are fulfilled. This is the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood - which is outlawed in Egypt - has received a proposal from Mubarak's regime for political partnership, but it seems the Brotherhood is at a loss on how to react at a time it is gaining the most cache.
Their leader, Mohamed Badie, is in favor of severing ties between the movement and politics and only because of internal struggles in the movement did he agree to participate in parliamentary elections, which turned out to be a total failure.
The various movements that began the demonstrations are also not pleased. The Kifaya movement sees itself as having the copyright over getting the public to rise up against Mubarak and as the pioneer in opposing Gamal Mubarak.
Meanwhile the wind has gone out of its sails. Following Mubarak's announcement that he was resigning from further election and his decision to pull his son out of the political arena, the movement has not been left with a great deal of content to its platform.
The opposition activist Ayman Nour, who ran in the last presidential elections and lost amidst a great deal of hubbub, is claiming that he is the real alternative leader, but that view is not held by the official opposition parties such as Al-Wafd and Al-Tagamoa, which are holding negotiations with Suleiman. These two represent only a small percentage of the voters, though, and are not conceived of as worthy alternatives.
With no viable alternative amongst them, the masses of demonstrators are being forced to rely on the United States as a lever of pressure. But herein lies the biggest threat to the protest movement, as relying on America to instigate changes for them is tantamount to betraying the very revolution itself.
The protesters will not want, later on, to seem to be responsible for changing the regime with the use of American bayonets and thus to lose their public legitimacy.
Meanwhile the result is that any concessions, changes and reform are coming from above. Whatever Mubarak is prepared to give is what the public is getting. The government no longer includes businessmen who became the symbol of corruption of the regime.
The ruling party underwent a revolution at the end of the week with the disappearance of people who had served in it for years, like Safwat el-Sherif, the party's secretary general who was Mubarak's shadow and the central pillar of the party; and tycoon Ahmed Ezz, the head of the organization branch in the party, who was the focus of scathing public criticism over the reportedly shady sources of his money, and Hosni's son Gamal Mubarak, who headed the party's policy committee and resigned, thus removing himself completely from the public eye.
However the party, which was founded by Anwar Sadat in 1978, is still alive and kicking and its mechanisms are well in control of state institutions and some of the trade unions.
Mubarak is prepared to enact reforms opening up the democratic process, but so far these concessions have not been sufficient. The demonstrators, so it seems, now want Mubarak's head more than the reforms.
For his part, Mubarak is prepared to give them a great deal, on condition that the big change will be carried out by him with his own hands. This is not merely an egotistic desire to be remembered as the reformer of Egypt, it is an appropriate understanding that reforms of this kind require drawn-out constitutional processes.
Egypt is still a country of institutions and systems, of a legal system that many times presents an independent position, and of institutions which, despite corruption, provide essential services to the public.
This is not the same kind of military revolution or the destruction of mechanisms that took place in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled.
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