Thirty years after being appointed president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has realized there was no way to avoid naming a vice president in order to quell the battle for succession, which seven years ago lit the spark of the civil revolt that culminated in the current series of mass demonstrations. This could also be the first step toward removing the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, from the presidential race and perhaps from political life. It is the first significant political action taken by Mubarak in response to public pressure - revolutionary in itself - and a clear signal from the president that Egypt is not Tunisia and he has no intention of vacating his office at this stage.
The appointment of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president, and aviation minister and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister, underscore the link between the military and politics in Egypt and revive the tradition of army officers who become presidents and impose their will on the public and its leadership. This tradition brought Mubarak to power after Anwar Sadat's murder in 1981 and gave Egypt 30 years of stability, under disgraceful conditions.
The pragmatic, ideology-free Mubarak created a system of checks and balances in which the arena of public debate increased to a degree unprecedented since the 1952 Free Officers coup, with the proliferation of nongovernmental newspapers, satellite television stations, a state-supplied Internet infrastructure and the freedom to voice criticism. Mubarak's regime was the most tolerant of strikes and demonstrations, while aggressively pursuing political opposition, which it viewed as a threat to the system. Mubarak's system made citizens completely dependent on the government while also promoting the wholesale privatization of state enterprises. Mubarak navigated this system of balances with relative success - for 30 years civil revolt did not erupt.
Now that it has, Mubarak is trying to use the same system to neutralize the opposition's power.
Suleiman has been mentioned in the past year as a possible successor to Mubarak, together with Gamal. Will Mubarak announce in a few months that he is relinquishing his seat to Suleiman, or will the president reserve the right to run for reelection and force his deputy to wait until he dies or steps down? In either case, yesterday's appointments were intended not only to calm the roiling street by means of two figures with clean, capable reputations but also to salvage the political party machinery that runs the state.
The opposition movements, which are not monolithic in nature, must now decide whether to accept Suleiman's appointment as an adequate response to their opposition to hereditary succession, or to continue to demand Mubarak's exit.
If they settle, on the assumption that they could not expect to achieve more at this stage and that in any event demonstrations have a limited life span and could spin into a looting and robbery campaign, these movements will return to their old ways of calling for reforms while fighting among themselves.
If they decide to continue their struggle they will have to present an alternative that can win broad agreement, and to pass it within the confines of the constitution. These are huge challenges. The disagreements in the opposition are not just between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular groups, but within each grouping. There is no consensus opposition candidate, no common platform except to get rid of Mubarak and introduce full democracy, and no certainty of public support. In a population of 85 million, there's no way to know whether the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated in the past five days are genuinely a representative sample.
Even if a consensus candidate were to be miraculously found, Egypt's constitution would have to be changed in order to enable someone from outside the ruling party to lead the country, and that would require the agreement of a parliament in the iron grip of that party. The necessary constitutional revolution must start with new, free parliamentary elections, but such an election threatens not only the current regime but also the secular opposition, and could shift the center of political gravity in Egypt to their rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood.