Mubarak has unveiled his new cabinet. According to AFP, the line-up was announced on state television a short time ago. Not surprisingly Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi has kept his job, as has Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. What is significant is how little has changed: among key posts the only people to be replaced were the interior and finance ministers.

AFP describes the outgoing interior minister, Habib Al-Adly, as "widely hated" - to which I can only say, 'so what else is new?' Over the years Egyptian interior ministers, who are in charge of the police, have proven to be pretty much interchangable. They tend to be slightly thuggish, invariably unpopular figures and almost always end their careers as scapegoats during a cabinet reshuffle. Dumping an interior minister has traditionally been a safety valve for Mubarak - there's always a sigh of relief when one goes, even though everyone knows the new guy is going to be pretty much the same as his predecessor.

Finance ministers, too, have traditionally been the people Mubarak throws out when he wants to show he is 'hearing the People's voice.' The problem, of course, is that this time the People are not complaining about an austerity program pushed by foreign donors or a new agreement with the IMF - the traditional sort of things that turn an Egyptian finance minister into the fall guy. The protesters in the streets of Cairo are complaining about the entire system of government

In an odd side note Mubarak also dumped longtime Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. If that name vaguely rings a bell it is because Hosni, last year, narrowly lost his bid to become head of UNESCO after international attention began to focus on his tendency to pander to anti-Semites in the Egyptian parliament (he famously promised to burn every Israeli book in the Egypt's libraries). I'm no fan of Farouk Hosni, but at this moment is this really where Mubarak ought to be directing his attention?

What does the new cabinet mean? At best, it indicates how profoundly divorced from reality Mubarak now is: that he fails to understand that what is happening in his country is fundamentally different from anything he has ever faced. Again, that is the best case scenario. The other - and, I fear, more likely - explanation is that Mubarak is sending a signal that he intends to dig in and fight. If so, that will be bad news for everyone.

The Conspiracy theory of the moment is that the looters and thugs terrorizing nighttime Cairo and Alexandria are agents of the regime – police and internal security men in plain clothes who are spreading terror and chaos in an effort to panic people into wanting a military crackdown to restore order.

I have long been wary of Middle Eastern conspiracy theories, but this one seems more plausible than most. For decades Mubarak has justified his heavy-handed rule by claiming that the only alternative to his regime is chaos leading, eventually, to an Iranian-style theocracy. Is it so difficult to believe that he may have decided to make Egyptians stare into the abyss before offering them the choice between the devil they know and the one they don’t? The evidence is anecdotal, but it is far more than mere rumor: neighborhood patrols are capturing would-be looters and saboteurs and discovering that some carry police or security service IDs.

That said, there are other possible explanations for what is happening. Looting, after all, may just be… looting. Cairo certainly has its share of criminals, and the withdrawal of police from the city’s streets was bound to bring out looters. Note that this theory implies only that the government is not actively abetting the breakdown of civil order – it does not mean that they aren’t hoping to take advantage of it.

The regime may be organizing the looting. It may be standing idly by and allowing it to take place. There is also, however, a third option: that the regime wants to assert control but finds itself frozen in place.

Egypt is a remarkably centralized state, one in which even relatively minor decisions get passed all the way up to a cabinet minister, or even the president. This is partly because its bureaucratic culture discourages officials from taking any action for which they might be held responsible. It is also partly because that is simply the way things have always been done – not just under Mubarak and his predecessors but under the monarchy, the British, the French, the Ottomans and, if you believe local lore, pretty much all the way back to the Pharaohs.

According to this theory the entire security apparatus, starting with the army, may be waiting for Mubarak to tell them what to do while Mubarak himself is paralyzed with indecision. When I lived in Cairo, in the 80s and 90s, American embassy officials would, in private conversation, express general satisfaction with Mubarak as an ally with a single caveat: he was not, they said, good in a fast-moving crisis.

There were two occasions during his first decade in power when such crises presented themselves: the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro (which found Mubarak caught between his American patrons and Palestinian militants who enjoyed enormous support among his people), and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 (in which the question was how – or whether – to confront Iraq’s aggression).

On both occasions, American officials would say privately, when presented with difficult and unpopular decisions that needed to be made quickly he simply froze up. In both cases, they’d say, he eventually did more or less the right thing, but he practically had to be shoved into it.

Since then no comparable situation has really presented itself. The Mubarak regime’s war with Islamist militants unspooled over a period of years in the 90s. There were many brutal and violent moments, and there were tough decisions to make, but the situation never required minute-to-minute crisis management. The opposition Kefaya movement’s protests in 2005 and the later April 6 Movement protests (which first took shape in 2008) were nothing that ever really worried the regime. They were an annoyance, but never really threatened its stability.

Today, that is not the case. For all of the personality cult that has grown up around him in recent years, Mubarak is an inherently cautious man. Time and again he has indicated that the lesson he took away from Sadat’s final years (when the man the West still remembers as a great peacemaker was openly reviled on Cairo’s streets) and eventual assassination was that getting out ahead of public opinion carries great risks and offers mostly trouble in return.

So as the aging dictator watches the violence unfold around him he may, indeed, be the great puppet master. But it seems just as plausible to me that he is overwhelmed: too terrified to do anything, for fear that whatever choice he makes might turn out to be wrong.

The irony is that things have reached a point where neither of these scenarios offers much hope of keeping him in power. As Mohammed El-Baradei suggested in interviews today, the best favor Mubarak can now do the nation, and himself, is to depart in an orderly manner while maintaining some shred of dignity. I fear, however, that that choice, too, may be too much this for this Pharaoh who is paradoxically brutal in his methods, yet cautious to a fault.

Ben Wedeman reported on CNN a short time ago that “a source familiar with the thinking of Egypt’s ruling party” (interestingly vague bit of sourcing, that) tells him Suleiman's appointment ensures that a credible (from the military's perspective) successor is in place should Mubarak need to go. That makes sense to me. 

This ties into the bigger point I've tried to make over the last two days: Egypt’s military is an independent, free-standing organization and it holds ultimate authority in the country. Mubarak, in effect, heads that organization. His peers (the generals) are loyal to him, but have a deeper loyalty to the institution. They won't abandon him lightly, but will not hesitate to do so if they believe they must. 

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.

Events are moving very quickly in Cairo and it would be pointless to say anything definitive at this moment. Watching the uprising unfold on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez (and reportedly, away from TV cameras, in places like Minya and Asyut) it is important, I think, to put the role of the Egyptian military in context.

I have been hearing a lot of people speculate over the last few hours about the possibility of a military “take-over” in Egypt. These commentators miss a key point: the military already runs Egypt, and has done so since 1952 when the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the country’s monarchy.

Under Nasser and Sadat (1952–1981) this was obvious. Army officers were the face of Nasser’s regime. This changed a bit under Sadat (particularly in the later years of his rule), but mainly in a cosmetic way. There might be more men in suits representing the country and running its ministries than had been the case under Nasser, but everyone understood that senior civilians took these leading roles only because the military found it convenient to let them do so.

Sadat himself (one of the original Free Officers) appeared publicly as a military man or a civilian according to whatever he thought the occasion required. When he was was assassinated on 6 October 1981 he was wearing his Field Marshall’s uniform as he reviewed a military parade. As the shots were fired his vice president – Hosni Mubarak – stood a few steps away wearing his own Air Vice Marshall’s uniform (i.e. head of the Air Force).

Mubarak was lightly wounded in that attack and formally became president a week later. It is to Mubarak’s credit that he has not been seen in uniform since that day on the reviewing stand, but the point is that he did not have to be. Everyone in the military knows that Mubarak is one of them.

Under Mubarak the military has retreated to the background. Civilians have long occupied all cabinet positions except the defense ministry. Technocrats run places like the electricity ministry while the foreign ministry and the internal security services are self-perpetuating bureaucracies drawn from particular strata of society (the well-educated middle class in the latter case, the old-money elite in the former).

But all of this takes place at the military’s sufferance. The military allows Mubarak to run things this way partly because they rightly see him as one of their own – and, thus, as someone who will keep the military’s interests foremost in his mind – and partly because their experience under Nasser and Sadat led Egypt’s soldiers to conclude that giving civilians nominal power within a system where they set the parameters was a far more efficient way to run things.

As a result, Egypt is not a military dictatorship in the sense that, say, Burma is today or that many Latin American countries were in the 1970s. But make no mistake, from behind the scenes it is run by its generals. They have trusted Mubarak and supported him for three decades because he is one of them. Should they decide to move him aside that will constitute an internal reshuffling, not a coup.

Tunisia presents President Obama with the opportunity to show that, unlike Bush and his other predecessors, he will put the long-term interests of Arab people ahead of the short-term interests of Arab governments.

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Media reports over the last hour indicate that Tunisian President Zein Al-Abdine Ben Ali has fled the country (see this story from the NYT). The Prime Minister went on national TV a short time ago to announce that he is taking power. This all comes a few hours after Ben Ali dissolved the government in the face of rising unrest.

More thoughts on all this shortly.