Egypt in Turmoil: Is an End Game Being Played Out?

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Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

A protester draped in an Egyptian flag climbs atop an army tank to shake hands with a soldier in Cairo January 29, 2011.

On the streets of Cairo on Saturday, the chanting was clearly in response to President Hosni Mubarak's overnight remarks. Mubarak had declared that he would replace the government — skirting over the fact that popular anger had turned specifically toward him. And so the crowds modified their slogan to remove any ambiguity. On Friday, many had shouted that "The people want the regime to fall." On Saturday, that had become "The people want the rais [the leader] to fall." Just so the President got the point.

"Everybody knows that governments don't make decisions in this country. Mubarak does," says a young Cairene woman who didn't want to give her name. "Why would he think we still want him?" Mustafa, 47, a teacher, agrees. "He thinks he's a pharaoh." "We just want him gone," says Mahmoud, a young man taking pictures of a burned out mall on the edge of the Nile, looted on Friday night. "And for the first time ever, it seems like we're almost there. I don't know how, but we can feel it."

On Saturday, Mubarak swore in Omar Suleiman, 76, chief of Egyptian intelligence, as his vice-president. The decision is significant because, over his 30-year reign, the Egyptian president has never had a vice-president and the political succession was always ambiguous, hence the speculation that his son Gamal was being groomed as his dynastic heir. As the news circulated, speculation was rife that the shadowy intelligence chief, who has the support of the still popular Egyptian military, was the safe pair of hands which the U.S. and Israel would approve to manage an orderly transition that would maintain Egypt's international commitments; it also may signal that Mubarak may not be running for another term in September.

Internationally, Suleiman has had an increasingly prominent role in mediating disputes between rival Palestinian factions in the Occupied Territories as well as trying to bring Lebanon's bitter political rivals together. Domestically, as head of the intelligence apparatus, Suleiman has stayed somewhat in the shadows, a fact that may now play in his favor as Egyptians lash out at symbols of the regime.

Suleiman had been mentioned in the recent WikiLeaks dump of U.S. diplomatic cables as a potential successor to Mubarak. Describing the Egyptian intelligence chief as a "Mubarak consigliere," the U.S. cables cited Suleiman's "military background" and that he was "unlikely to harbor ambitions for another multi-decade presidency." Also from the documents: "An alleged personal friend of [Suleiman] tells us that [Suleiman] 'detests' the idea of Gamal as president, and that he also was 'deeply personally hurt' by Mubarak, who promised to name him vice-president several years ago, but then reneged."

Even before the word of Suleiman's appointment came out, there was already a heady sense of pending victory in the offices of Egypt's fledgling opposition parties. While mobile phones are still mostly disconnected, TIME's Aryn Baker in Beirut managed to reach Cairo by landline and speak to Abou Elela Mady, Chairman of the Al-Wasat Party. He was audibly excited. His office has become a de-facto protest staging ground, and, when reached, was preparing to lead a protest group towards Tahrir Square, the focal point of this week's showdown with the regime. "I think this is the end of Mubarak," he shouted, as he tried to make his voice heard over the cacophony in his office. In the backround, it sounded as if the protesters were practicing their chants. There had been a rumor going around that there has been a split between Mubarak and the Army, and it has galvanized the protesters. "I think he will be gone in a few hours," he said, as folks cheered in the background. Mady had been out on the streets with his daughter and two sons every day since the protests started. He was giddy with the thought that today may actually be the last stand. "We won't leave until Mubarak is pushed out like Ben Ali [the ousted President of Tunisia]." Said Mady, "These are historical hours, minutes, not days. Everything is happening so fast. It is the beginning of a new era for Egypt, one we have been waiting for for 30 years. We can now call it a revolution."

Since it was established six years ago, Mady's al-Wasat party has been sitting in limbo — not recognized by the Egyptian government, it cannot field candidates as a party. Instead members have been forced to run as independents. This is a common tactic of Mubarak's regime, one that has severely curtailed the development of a true opposition. Now, Mady is anticipating some fundamental changes to Egypt's political system, and the small opposition parties that have struggled to make their voices heard for so long. "It will be a new era for all of us. It is a chance to be a real part of Egypt's political life. Finally Egypt will be able to work as an ordinary country, one with elections and a real democracy, not a dictatorship draped in the cloth of democracy," he said. "This will open the door to all who want a say in Egypt's future, not just a small elite that ruled by corruption and the marriage of violence and power. That game is over."

Mady used to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, until he split to form al-Wasat. He dismissed Western concerns that the Islamist group might use the situation to its advantage and take over the country. "The Muslim Brotherhood is powerful, and they have large numbers, so yes there is a small worry," he says. "But this revolution is not just opening the doors to the Brotherhood, but to all political actors. This will actually lead to a balance in Egyptian society, where power is distributed to all, not just the brotherhood, as the regime has threatened." Mady echoed a refrain common to many politicians opposed to Egypt's president: "The Brotherhood is a scarecrow that the regime sets up to frighten westerners into accepting Mubarak's police state. Once power is evenly distributed, we will see that they don't have that much strength."

As he spoke, a ticker flash on CNN said that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah had pledged his support to Mubarak. Asked about this, Mady laughed: "All the Arab regimes, they are terrified. They know that if Mubarak falls, they will be next. Tunis gave us a push, but Egypt is the beginning of the end for the Arab world's dictatorial regimes. They should all be afraid now."

With reporting by Tony Karon / New York