By William Fisher
As the words of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s words blasted out into Tahrir Square, the jubilant mood of the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators there turned, first, to disbelief, then to anger.
In a rambling, often incoherent speech, the 82-year-old autocrat told the stunned crowd he would cede “some power” to his newly-minted Vice President, Omar Souleiman, but had no intention of resigning as president.
From the start of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations, the President’s total removal from office has been the bottom line. They were not likely to accept less.
For the pro-democracy forces, the crash at the end of the emotional roller-coaster they’d been rising all day was made worse by strong rumors that the Mubarak speech was to be his resignation, a possibility made to seem stronger when it was spoken to a Congressional hearing by Leon Panetta, head of the CIA, who termed his sources as usually reliable. Hopes were dashed before the actual speech by the Minister of Information, who denied that Mubarak was ready to resign.
That Murarak was handing over some of his powers to Suleiman drew boos and catcalls from the demonstrators.
One of them said to a television reporter: “That’s like Mubarak taking the country out of his left hand and giving it to his right hand. These two men are one.”
Souleiman has been Mubarak’s closest confidante for the past few years in running the military police state. Both men are from the military. Among other tasks, Sulieman has been Mubarak’s point man for relations with the CIA and the U.S. Military. As Egypt’s intelligence chief, his CIA connection put him in charge of the American government’s program of renditions. Several reputable sources have said he was personally involved in the interrogation and torture of some rendition victims.
The future relationship between the two leaders was arguably made more confusing by a “clarification” issued by the Egyptian Ambassador to the US. Speaking on CNN, he said, “Mubarak remains the de jure president of the country and Suleiman is the de facto president.”
Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown University, agreed that “that’s not what Mubarak said.”
Neil Hicks, a senior advisor to Human Rights First, told us, “What Mubarak said was unclear, perhaps purposefully so, but it suggested that he was delegating authority to Suleiman to oversee transition and specifically the Constitutional reforms he listed.”
International Human Rights groups were as confused as the rest of Mubarak’s audience. During the 17 days of the uprising, staff members of some of these organizations had been arrested and detained while others had been physically abused.
Amnesty International urged Egypt's authorities to ”end 30 years of repressive emergency rule and allow ordinary Egyptians to fully participate in shaping the country's future.” The organization called for a curb on the sweeping powers of security forces, the release of prisoners of conscience, and for safeguards against torture to be introduced in a new human rights action plan addressed to the country's authorities.
"Egyptians have suffered under a state of emergency for three decades; the decisions made in this momentous period will be critical for Egypt and the region," said Claudio Cordone, Senior Director at Amnesty International.
“Those now in power should view the activism on the streets of Cairo and other cities not as a threat, but as an opportunity to consign the systematic abuses of the past to history. Political transition must involve the people and foster respect for human rights," Cordone said.
Amnesty International is organizing a Global Day of Action for Egypt on
Saturday, February 12. Demonstrations are planned in 20 countries,
including the UK, Australia, Spain, France, South Korea and Norway, as well as U.S. cities including New York, Washington and several other cities.
“Mubarak’s speech is far from the needed break with the abusive system of the past 30 years,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Cosmetic changes are not enough to meet the Egyptian people’s demands for democracy and human rights. The US and EU governments should use their influence and their aid to encourage real reform.”
Human Rights Watch said that the Egyptian military, long an integral part of the government, has been a key actor in creating and defending the repressive system currently in place in Egypt.
The Egyptian military will likely play an important role in the run-up to future elections. Senior decision-makers include a number of individuals drawn from the security forces, such as Vice President Omar Suleiman, himself a former military officer and until January 29, 2011, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service; Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense; and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik, former head of the air force. Mubarak himself was head of the air force before then-President Anwar Sadat named him as vice president, Roth said.
He added, “Vice President Suleiman has rebuffed calls for the most basic reforms, such as repealing the Emergency Law, and instead claimed that Egyptians are ‘not ready for democracy,’” Roth said. “It’s not enough for the Egyptian government to promise constitutional change, they must dismantle the system behind the dictatorship.”
Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks said, “President Mubarak’s statement this evening has not advanced the transition towards a more democratic Egypt and has intensified the crisis. Proposals for constitutional reform supervised by regime loyalists hold no credibility. For democratic and human rights reforms to advance, power must shift decisively from President Mubarak and his military advisors, including Vice-President Omer Suleiman, to a more inclusive transitional authority.”
He continued: “This announcement increases the possibility of open confrontation between protestors and military forces, a situation that would represent the worst case scenario on the streets on Egypt. The Obama administration must use all their powers of persuasion to encourage Egypt’s leaders, and especially Egypt’s military establishment, to respond to the demands of the Egyptian people with an unequivocal and immediate move towards the formation of an inclusive transitional authority.”
Human Rights groups are concerned that the anger of pro-democracy protesters will place them in positions where they will be subject to harassment and police brutality. At the end of the speeches tonight, many of the demonstrators headed for the State Television building. That building is ordinarily heavily guarded by police and soldiers.