Egypt: What Happens When the Revolution Is Delayed

After the high drama of the first wave of anti-government protests, many Egyptians are beginning to grow anxious about what the uprisings has wrought. The latest refusal of Mubarak to leave is bound to roil emotions and anxieties

  • Suhaib Salem / Reuters

    Opposition supporters gather in their stronghold of Tahrir Square, in Cairo Feb. 10th, 2011.

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    Mubarak, naturally, is keen to give the impression of business as usual: he met with the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates and with Russia's envoy to the Middle East. (His new Cabinet also announced a 15% raise for all state employees, an unsubtle attempt to curry favor with the 6 million people on the government payroll.)

    For the young Egyptians at the vanguard of the uprising, Mubarak's photo ops are a provocation. But to many others, they are an assurance of stability and continuity. In a country where there had been no political change for a generation, sudden shifts can be a frightening prospect. "We must have a slow, gradual transition," says Abdel-Mohsin, the lawyer. "It doesn't help to create a power vacuum now." Yasser Salaheddine, 36, a rug repairman who attended several pro-Mubarak rallies, worries that opposition groups have disparate agendas — a recipe for chaos. "The Muslim Brotherhood have their ideas. The other opposition groups have ideas. So what is going to happen after Mubarak leaves?" he asks. "The best thing that [Mubarak] did was that he didn't leave. If he had, things would be very difficult now."

    Mubarak's Man
    Suleiman, 74, has anxieties of his own. The former general and Egypt's top spymaster hopes to engineer a face-saving exit for his boss and friend. But he must also protect the interests of the institution that commands the loyalty of both men: the military. Egypt's armed forces need the $1.3 billion annual stipend they receive from the U.S. as much as the respect they enjoy among ordinary Egyptians. Both those considerations rule out the use of military force against the revolution. Besides, many ordinary soldiers have shown sympathy for the protesters.

    The military leadership comes from more conservative stock, however, and regards the protesters as dangerous rabble; Suleiman has described them as working for "foreign agendas." The top brass are also leery of calls for economic reforms, since they may threaten the military's vast business interests, including a network of military-owned factories that produce everything from olive oil to Jeep Cherokees.

    How can Suleiman protect the military and Mubarak? By conceding as little as possible to the protesters. Since being named Vice President on Jan. 29, Suleiman has talked a good game about reforms, investigations into abuses and negotiations with the opposition. But the emergency law remains in force, allowing police and intelligence officials to harass and detain opposition figures, human-rights activists and journalists. Suleiman has formed committees to consider constitutional amendments — a key demand of the opposition — but also has said he doesn't think Egyptians are ready for democracy. (This earned him a sharp rebuke from Washington: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described that comment as "unhelpful.")

    This is Suleiman's stock-in-trade: as head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS) since 1993, he has been the enforcer of the emergency law's most draconian statutes. Suleiman's intelligence agency and the Interior Ministry are generally credited with undermining the Muslim Brotherhood after the Islamist group won one-fifth of the vote in elections in 2005. But GIS was also responsible for the repression of secular opposition groups, ensuring that the National Democratic Party routinely won huge majorities in elections. The President relied on Suleiman for delicate international tasks as well, including mediating between Israelis and Palestinians.

    As secretive as any other spymaster, Suleiman is something of a mystery to most Egyptians. Successive Administrations in Washington regarded him as a friend. Dispatches from the U.S. embassy in Cairo obtained and released by WikiLeaks show the esteem in which he was held: one letter, from Scobey, described Suleiman as a "pragmatist with an extremely sharp analytical mind." A cable from 2006 labeled him "the most successful element" of U.S.-Egypt cooperation in the Middle East peace process. Leaked letters from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv suggest that the Israelis, too, held Suleiman in the highest regard. A 2008 cable noted that of the likely successors to Mubarak, "there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar [Suleiman]."

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