Imagine that sometime in 2007 turmoil had gripped Washington. Tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of people rallied in the city packing the streets from the Capitol to the White House. Late one evening George W. Bush goes on TV, announcing that he has heard the people speak. Stability is the first priority, he says, but he acknowledges that real change is also necessary. Bush then announces that he is firing the entire cabinet. The next morning, with great fanfare, he begins the process of reform and rebuilding public trust by appointing a new chief of staff: Karl Rove.

Broadly speaking, this is what has happened in Cairo this morning. And just as the elevation of a trusted insider would not have done much to save a collapsing George W. Bush presidency in the situation I’ve just imagined, so the appointment of Omar Suleiman as Egypt’s new vice president can be seen mainly as a sign of how far removed Hosni Mubarak has become from what is happening in Cairo’s streets.

Put another way, Suleiman’s appointment is an indication that appeasing the protestors is not particularly high on Mubarak’s priority list. “Omar Suleiman in many ways is Hosni Mubarak’s comfort zone,” as Jon Alterman of CSIS aptly put it this morning on CNN.

Suleiman is Mubarak’s long-time intelligence chief. He is well-known in official Washington and among security officials and spymasters around the region. Among journalists, he is one of those shadowy, powerful figures of whom everyone has heard but whom practically no one has met. He is Egypt’s first vice president since Mubarak himself held the job back in 1981. Egypt’s constitution allows the President to appoint a Vice President, but Mubarak has always refused to do so, saying on more than one occasion that in all its history Egypt has had only one vice president who was loyal to his leader, and that VP’s name was “Mubarak”.

In a small but telling gesture, the official video of Sulieman being sworn-in that ran on Egyptian TV showed him wearing a coat and tie. When he finished taking his oath, however, he straightened up and saluted the President. Shortly thereafter it was announced that the new Prime Minister will be Ahmed Shafiq – like Mubarak himself a career Air Force officer who is now nominally a civilian (he has been serving as Minister of Civil Aviation). Sulieman and Shafiq’s appointments are both reminders that the military are Egypt’s real rulers, as they have been since Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952. Faced with the first real threat to his power in decades, Air Vice Marshall Mubarak is surrounding himself with the only people he believes he can really trust: other senior military officers. That may be logical, from his perspective, but it indicates a worrisome degree of detachment from what is happening out in the streets.

Mubarak’s speech last night was very revealing. It indicated that he believes the uprising to be unrepresentative of society’s true attitudes (on MSNBC Chris Matthews likened it to Richard Nixon’s 1969 “silent majority” speech on Vietnam – a comparison I found surprisingly apt). It was mainly a law and order speech and, perhaps inevitably, tipped over into conspiracy-mongering. Mubarak referred to the protests as “part of a bigger plot” (he did not say by whom) to undermine Egypt’s stability, and seemed to indicate that security is his top priority. “I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian,” he said.

The parts of the speech that promised reform were also telling, albeit in a fairly disappointing way. Yes, he spoke of economic progress, democracy and political openness. But he did so using pretty much the same language I’ve heard him use in every speech since I first moved to Cairo in 1988. What Egyptian, listening to last night’s appearance, could honestly believe that anything is about to change?

If one were inclined to give Mubarak the benefit of the doubt just now, the most charitable thing to say would be that he apparently feels underappreciated. Don’t all those people out in the street know how hard he works for the People? There was a self-pitying bit near the beginning where he sought to remind everyone that he has given his life to public service.

Watching the pictures from Cairo and Alexandria, however, it is hard to imagine many people seeing things that way, or giving President Mubarak the benefit of the doubt just now.

 


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