WASHINGTON: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak missed his cue for a dignified exit from 30-years of strongman rule, likely guaranteeing still more chaos — perhaps bloodshed — in the streets of Cairo where hundreds of thousands of his people have massed to demand his immediate resignation.
By promising Tuesday not to run again for the presidency in September, Mubarak defied the will of the people's uprising that has declared no stomach for even another day under his leadership.
What has been a mainly peaceful street revolution so far is now in danger of flaring into violent confrontations as Mubarak vowed to restore order, the job of his despised and brutal police, even as he promised reforms that would ensure a peaceful transition to different leadership.
Mubarak’s decision to stubbornly hold on to power, if even for a few more months, only deepened what has become the biggest foreign policy crisis to confront President Barack Obama. The American president watched in Washington as Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people. He was looking on to see what Mubarak would be saying after Obama’s envoy traveled to Cairo to tell him his time in power was at an end.
Obama too had talked with Mubarak about his future in a 30-minute telephone conversation and made clear in a brief televised statement that he expects movement toward a change soon.
“It is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now,” Obama said.
Washington fears even further instability in the Middle East, where other less-than-democratic leaders were watching too, watching as the winds of a street revolution that began in Tunisia in December quickly swept west to Egypt. In Jordan, King Abdullah II disbanded his government and appointed a new prime minister, promising quick action on reforms and moves to ease rising prices. Demonstrations likewise have flared in Yemen on the tip of the Saudi peninsula, and opposition figures were threatening to go into the streets in Syria.
In Israel, which has counted on its 30-year-old peace treaty with the most-populous Arab country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now confronts a new unknown in the Jewish state’s very dangerous neighborhood The 82-year-old Mubarak, who has been one of the United States’ most steadfast and valued allies in the Middle East, defiantly declared his intention to die on Egyptian soil, ruling out flight abroad in the face of the uprising. He must have been thinking of the ouster of Tunisia’s former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, last month. He fled to Saudi Arabia after weeks of street protests.
Three decades earlier, the Shah of Iran, a key Cold War ally of Washington, fled to Egypt in the face of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.
“This dear nation is where I lived. I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History will judge me like it did others,” said Mubarak.
The quarter million protesters on Cairo’s main square watched on a giant television screen, then booed. Some waved their shoes over the heads in a sign of contempt. “Go, go, go! We are not leaving until he leaves,” they chanted.
In Washington, a senior Arab diplomat said Mubarak simply could not bring himself to resign.
“Mubarak is reconciled to being a former president but not to being a deposed president,” the envoy said.
Mubarak’s military has been overlooking the demonstrations for days now, promising it would not open fire on the protesters. It now faces a major test, perhaps a choice between the people and Mubarak, a former fighter pilot and air force commander. The president’s decision to keep grasping for his once-unchallenged power was certain only to fuel continued street protests, perhaps cause them to grow and spread across the city.
What then? Will they shoot? Will they battle on behalf of demonstrators, who now are certainly headed toward a confrontation with an angry police force.
A missed cue to exit the Egyptian stage may have signaled many more acts in a Middle Eastern drama that could turn into the story of a spreading revolution.