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01 December 2023

What next after Mubarak's offer?

If the loyalists and protestors come to blows, the army could face a different dynamic and a tough choice (AFP)

By Reuters

A sea of people on Tuesday sent the Egyptian president a message loud and clear that he go - now. Hosni Mubarak's response was an offer that fell short of that.

Mubarak said he would leave office only after his term ends, with a presidential election due in September. He promised to deliver political reforms, which he has studiously dodged for 30 years, in his remaining months.

Below are some questions and answers about what happens next:

Can Mubarak last until September?

It looks highly unlikely. The one call all the protestors have united around is that Mubarak must quit now and that they would not go home until their goal was achieved. "He will leave, we are not leaving," they chanted after Mubarak spoke.

Probably a million or so hit Egypt's street on Tuesday. That is a staggering turnout. Until these protests erupted on January 25, anti-government demonstrations rarely mustered more than a few hundred. Protestors show no sign of being ready to give up now after squeezing more concessions from Mubarak in one week than he was willing to offer in 30 years. Protestors have the numbers to paralyse the state and make Mubarak's position untenable.

But one new element that adds to the mix was the sudden emergence hours after Mubarak's speech on Tuesday of small, pro-Mubarak demonstrations, which state television swiftly focused on. That suggests die-hard loyalists are not willing to give up easily, and possibly not without a fight.

How the military responds now may be decisive. The army pledged not to use force against protestors and said it recognised their "legitimate demands". It had little choice, given that the police lost control of the crowds with heavy-handed tactics. If the loyalists and protestors come to blows, the army could face a different dynamic and a tough choice. Either it abandons the president - one of its number - or squanders its popularity with the street. For now, it appears that it wants to keep the street on its side.

What happens if Mubarak is forced out?

Broadly, there are two routes this could go if Mubarak is forced aside. One route keeps the military in charge, either through installing Mubarak's newly appointed vice-president- Omar Suleiman, or another commander if he proves unacceptable. The other route would involve various permutations of a transitional government, probably involving close cooperation with the military initially until elections are arranged and a fully civilian government takes office. 
Can the military hold on to power?

The core of the demonstrators insist Suleiman, hastily made Mubarak's deputy as protests spun out of control, and anyone else close to Mubarak, would not be acceptable. "Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans," they chanted.

The view of opposition groups who have been gradually aligning as they scent victory is less clear. Though they would not be happy with Suleiman staying as president, some include his name among those who could form a "council of trustees" in an initial transitional period to prepare for free elections.

If not Suleiman, the military could try to lever another figure into the presidency - Chief of Staff Sami Enan's name often crops up. But that would be a tough stunt to pull off if the Egyptian military wants to keep on the right side of the United States and continue to receive $1.3 billion in US military aid.  Under one scenario, Egypt could follow the example of Sudan in 1985, when public unrest led to a coup and an interim military leader led Sudan to elections the next year. 

If not the military, then who?

Egypt's registered opposition parties have been weakened, fractured or compromised under Mubarak. Protest groups that have sprung up in recent years have proved far more nimble and have been quickly rallying as Mubarak's grip has appeared to weaken. Some influential individuals have also emerged, retired diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei or intellectual Ahmed Zewail, both Nobel Prize winners. But their common political ground may not extend much further than their goal to oust Mubarak. They could splinter as fast as they grouped when it comes to the gritty details of drawing up policy for government.

The only group with a coordinated national network that extends to the grass roots of Egyptian society is the Muslim Brotherhood. Though it has been hammered by state security over the years, it remains a formidable force. But just how formidable is an open question. Analysts tend to put its support among the population anywhere between 20 percent and 40 percent. Actually, no one knows because there have been no free elections and reliable opinion polls to test this.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood could mobilise masses of supporters to fill a political vacuum as opposition groups scramble to organise. That assumes the Brotherhood wants power, or at least wants it now. The group - by necessity admittedly - has learned to be patient. It has set its sights on winning over the majority Muslim population to its vision of a pluralistic, democratic and Islamist state. It may not yet feel ready for government or may not want to jump in.

The next government, in the aftermath of January's unrest, will face some enormous hurdles and will have high expectations to meet. The potential for tripping up is big. Not only will any new government have to worry about gaining the confidence of business and creating jobs, it will also need to work out what to do in the Middle East peace process and decide what to do about an virtual blockade of Gaza that has earned Mubarak's government opprobrium among many in Egypt and the region. That may be a job the Brotherhood will not want to take up now.