After a dramatic day in which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians came out in all the major towns and cities of the country to challenge the police and the ruling party, President Hosni Mubarak finally appeared on Egyptian television Friday evening to read a speech in which he announced that he would dismiss his cabinet. He will appoint a new one on Saturday.
He appears to have interpreted the protests against his regime as primarily about jobs, and he pledged to create more of them. The dismissal of the Interior Minister, Habib Adli, was indeed one of the demands of the radicals, and perhaps Mubarak meant to give in on it without admitting he was doing so, by firing all the ministers, including prime minister Ahmad Nazif. Nazif had widely been credited for economic reforms that produced on the average, about 5 percent per annum growth, in contrast to the largely stagnant economic situation 1970-2000. As for Adli, as minister of the Interior he was responsible for domestic surveillance.
At the same time, Mubarak sent the police home for the most part, and called out the army. He established a curfew, largely ignored in the big cities. By early morning Saturday, the military had taken up positions in the capital and elsewhere. Rumors swirled as to why he made this switch. Some said that too many of the police had sympathized with the protesters. Others that the crowds just overwhelmed the police. Certainly, reports were posted to twitter of police stations set ablaze in traditional Sitt Zaynab and in tony Maadi. The HQ of the ruling National Democratic Party was set ablaze and looted. The military moved Saturday morning to secure the museum area and to prevent a looting of the priceless artifacts.
Among the central demands of the protesters is that Mubarak himself step down, and it remains to be seen if they will really be satisfied with the fall of a prime minister and his government. Aljazeera is now broadcasting scenes from Saturday morning in Cairo and the crowds seem much thinner army establishes itself as the chief security force. Aljazeera is reporting a few hundred protesters in the center of the city called for Mubarak to step down altogether.
Mubarak is making a last stand. He is testing to see whether the army will back him. The military, some 460,000 strong and the world’s tenth largest, has the resources to commit to the struggle if it decides to get involved. The army chief of staff had been in Washington but is now flying back to Cairo.
Despite President Barack Obama’s call for greater personal liberties and restoration of internet access in Egypt, it is clear that Washington would just as soon Mubarak presided over a transition to his successor. With that tacit backing of the superpower, and support from the army, he may believe that he can survive yet one more crisis in this way.