End of an Era

It is an open question whether Mubarak, or Suleiman, will declare elections for the presidency in the near future.

At least one question was answered yesterday afternoon regarding who is the heir apparent to ailing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The president appointed the head of military intelligence, Omar Suleiman, as vice president, beating out Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi.

By yesterday morning, the seriousness of the protest situation was apparent to Mubarak. If he thought the day of rage on Friday and the replacement of the Egyptian cabinet would cool passions, he learned that his regime, as now constituted, was on its last legs. The masses were continuing to pour into Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo, demanding nothing less than Mubarak's removal from office, along with the assurance that his son Gamal would be excluded from the centers of power.

Then, a leading contender for the presidency in any democratic elections, former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei, went on the air to say that the Egyptian intifada would continue if Mubarak remained in office. For good measure, Al Jazeera put the Sunni Arab world's most important interpreter of Muslim religious law, Sheikh Yusef Al-Qaradawi, on the air; he called on Mubarak to have mercy on the Egyptian people and step down. One thing was clear: The presidency of the successor to Anwar Sadat was about to undergo dramatic change if not see the end of an era, not only for Egypt, but also for the Middle East as a whole.

The installation of Omar Suleiman as vice president was meant to signal to the public that Mubarak didn't intend, in due course, to turn the presidency over to his son Gamal. According to several news reports, Gamal and his older brother Ala had gone abroad and former aviation minister Ahmed Shafik has been appointed prime minister.

The departure of Mubarak's sons could give the protest movement in Egypt the victory, however partial, they were seeking. The new vice president, Suleiman, who was a pillar of the old regime, is not a member of the hated ruling National Democratic Party.

It is an open question, however, whether Mubarak, or Suleiman, will declare elections for the presidency in the near future. One scenario is that the protests will die down, Mubarak will retain power, Suleiman will run for president on behalf of the ruling party and - by fixing the election results - will be able to claim victory. It is more likely, however, that Mubarak will move the elections forward and soon step down from the presidency.

Such elections could lead to the victory of a secular candidate such as ElBaradei, but the multiplicity of secular candidates and the unity of the Muslim Brotherhood could bring the Brotherhood to power. There would be some historic justice in such an outcome in that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, and the country is home to the organization's largest base of support. Such a result, however, would constitute a nightmare scenario not only for Israel, but also for the Brotherhood's partners in the April 6 protest movement - young people, women, secular citizens. They were brought together in common cause not by the Koran, but by Facebook and the Internet. The Brotherhood is, however, the largest and most well-organized political group in the country. A victory on its part would herald a revolution in Egypt, this one Islamic.

In an effort to close the floodgates yesterday, army units were deployed less to enforce the rule of law than to head off the collapse of the regime. What was carried out was part of a contingency plan that the army had rehearsed more than once to ensure the regime's survival. Soldiers have been cooperating with the demonstrators since Friday; protesters have felt comfortable climbing on tanks and embracing men in uniform.

The announcement yesterday at 4 P.M. of a curfew was ignored both by civilians and the army. Police who tried in the first days of the protest to confront demonstrators have disappeared from the streets.

The fate of the regime hangs on several factors, and that included the will of the soldiers and also the motivation of the demonstrators.

Although events in Egypt have huge implications for the Middle East as a whole, their exact ramifications are not clear. Also critical for the region is how the American administration relates to Mubarak. Washington took a major gamble by coming out against Mubarak at such a critical time.