The Mexican standoff on the Nile turned deadly Wednesday as supporters and opponents of Egypt's ruler Hosni Mubarak clashed in the streets of Cairo and the Obama Administration intensified efforts to persuade the embattled Egyptian president to resign immediately.
Human rights and pro-democracy activists accused the Mubarak regime of having sent undercover police and his state's security forces into the streets to foment the violence between the pro-and anti-Mubarak forces.
The Obama Administration seemed to give credence to the charge Wednesday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged not President Mubarak, but newly designated Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman to probe the violence and hold those responsible for the mayhem accountable. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley also condemned the street fighting.
At the Pentagon, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for calm and expressed confidence in the Egyptian military. A Pentagon press release said that Adm. Mullen had spoken by phone with his Egyptian counterpart, Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, reiterating his desire for a return to calm as well as his conviction that the Egyptian military would be able to secure Egypt both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area.
But Adm. Mullen was also said to have quietly pressed his counterpart to urge Mubarak to step aside so that Omar Suleiman could begin negotiating a transition to a new government with a coalition of opposition figures, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, an Islamic party that is Egypt's largest and best organized opposition force, has joined forces with secular human rights and other civil society groups that have been pushing for Mubarak's resignation.
The American statements reflect a much more proactive effort on the part of the Obama administration to persuade the man who has governed Egypt for nearly 30 years as a stalwart American ally to step down. The White House has clearly decided that Mubarak's days are numbered, and that the sooner he leaves, the better the chances that other figures in the regime, such as Suleiman, can negotiate a smooth transition to an as yet uncertain future.
On Sunday, President Obama sent veteran diplomat Frank Wisner, who knew Mubarak well, to urge him privately to step aside in favor of others in his government. But Mubarak dug in. In a broadcast to the nation, he announced that he would not run for a sixth term, but that he would step down only in September – a dignified departure that would enable him to live out what remained of his life in Egypt.
After Mubarak spoke, sources said, he called President Obama to plead for his support of the timetable that Mubarak had outlined in his speech. Obama, however, then took to the air to say that based on his 30-minute telephone conversation with the Egyptian president, Mubarak seemed to recognize that the status quo was not "sustainable" and that to be meaningful, "an orderly transition must be peaceful." And, Obama added, "it must begin now."
While Mubarak made a major concession Tuesday night by announcing that he would not stand yet again for president, he seems to have doubled down on his bet that he can outlast the protesters' fury and stay in office, if only until the fall. In his second speech since Egypt's popular uprising began a week ago, President Mubarak declared that he had worked all of his life for his country and was determined to "die on Egyptian soil."
Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt now at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School who knows Mubarak well, said that dignity was paramount for the former air force officer-turned president. "The 21-gun salute and a sail off on a yacht as there was for Farouk is not for him," said Kurtzer, referring to the humiliating exile of the king who was deposed by military officers in 1952.
Tarek Heggy, a human rights activist and writer who has close friends in the regime, predicted that President Mubarak would not step down easily. "He is very stubborn," Heggy said in an interview. "His capacity to change is very limited."
Several analysts said the Obama administration has apparently concluded that the Mubarak hangs on, the less likely it will be that Omar Suleiman, the well-respected intelligence chief whom Mubarak chose as his vice president on Friday, would be seen as a plausible interlocutor, capable of presiding over a transition to elections and political reform. Suleiman's standing, Heggy said, was being compromised "with every day that Mubarak hangs on."
David Schenker, a former Pentagon official in the Bush Administration and now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, warned that President Mubarak's concessions had "only emboldened the crowd." "This, he agreed, risked making Suleiman, "who was initially considered acceptable as a compromise transition overseer, also unacceptable."
Because Suleiman is regarded as extremely competent, not corrupt, and lacking in personal political ambition, Egypt's military and security elite, as well as some anti-Mubarak forces, saw him as someone who could negotiate with all sides.
Now 74 years old – a spring chicken compared to Mubarak, who is 82 and ailing – Suleiman has long handled two of the regime's most sensitive portfolios: Egypt's relations with Israel and its counter-terrorism initiatives. He is also well-known and liked in Washington and Israel.
In secret diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks, a U.S. ambassador described Suleiman as a "rock-solid" loyalist to Mubarak who felt that fighting terrorism and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict were the keys to Egyptian stability and that of the region.
His suspicion of Iran and determination to work with the U.S. to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons have also endeared him to American officials, who have long considered the presidential succession issue the "elephant in the room of Egyptian politics," wrote then Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr.
Suleiman was also completely trusted by Mubarak, perhaps because he is credited with having saved his life in 1995 by insisting that Mubarak's armored Mercedes-Benz be flown to Ethiopia for his state visit there, Foreign Policy magazine reported. When gun-toting terrorists attacked the convoy, Mubarak escaped unharmed thanks to his armored car.
Mubarak's political fate could be determined in the next two-to-three days by two elements – whether Egypt's military and security elite continue supporting him, and whether the pro-democracy protesters who have filled Egypt's town squares and streets for the past week can sustain their momentum.
Some analyst said that support for Mubarak's determined stance within the military might be softening. While Mubarak must enjoy considerable support among military officers "or he wouldn't have given that speech," Schenker said, "this cannot go on indefinitely."
For their part, the protesters have declared Friday Mubarak's "departure day." They have vowed to fill Tahrir Square and Cairo's streets with an even larger crowd than the one million Egyptians who turned out Tuesday to demand that Mubarak resign.
Bassem Fathy, a member of the Egpyptian Democratic Academy, said that the protesters would have to remain united if they were to get rid of Mubarak – a huge challenge given the movement's lack of organic leadership and the nature of the pro-democracy movement.
The desire for unity and the lack of obvious leaders enabled Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency to present himself as a unifier of a movement whose members range from tiny non-governmental organizations to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Though the Brotherhood favors Islamic law and is hostile to Egypt's peace with Israel, it has found common cause with Mubarak's secular, pro-democracy foes.
Since his most recent arrival on Thursday in Cairo from Vienna, where he lives part-time, ElBaradei has, in fact, assumed a key role in formulating the movement's demands. He is on a new committee formed by various factions to conduct negotiations on the protesters' behalf if and when Mubarak resigns. And he has spoken frequently to American officials, his spokesman told reporters today. It was ElBaradei who said no to President Mubarak's most offer for "dialogue," a rejection that Mubarak cited scornfully in his speech Tuesday night.
Until Tuesday, the Obama administration tried to walk a fine line between positioning itself "on the right side of history," as one senior diplomat put it, and not unceremoniously dumping a leader who has supported American policy on key policies – the search for Arab-Israeli peace, counter-terrorism, and the effort to stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.
Yet the administration has apparently concluded that stability can only be restored quickly in Egypt if Mubarak, America's long-standing friend, now departs.
America's influence in the drama unfolding on the Nile, however, is probably limited. Despite spending roughly $2 billion billion a year on assistance to Cairo, Washington is unlikely to dictate either President Mubarak's decisions about when to leave office or how far to go in meeting protesters' demands. Such issues are likely to be shaped far more by internal Egyptian considerations.
The same can be said for the protesters, for whom the United States seems to be a marginal issue in their quarrels with the government. "This is an Egyptian struggle, an Egyptian phenomenon," Fathy said.
Analysts and activists alike predicted that the next two-to-three days would be critical for the protesters and the revolt that was triggered by mass protests last month that led to the resignation and exile of Tunisia's president in less than a month.
But Egypt is not Tunis, Omar Suleiman told visitors in a private meeting before he was appointed vice president. The Egyptian state and military, unlike that in Tunis, were strong. Mubarak would not leave. Whether or not he still believes that in light of Wednesday's bloody confrontations is uncertain.