Egypt's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, sought to get ahead of growing street demonstrations by calling for "constitutional reforms" ahead of what is expected to be on Tuesday the largest turnout of popular discontent in the country yet.
In a Monday evening address on Egyptian television, the former intelligence chief-appointed Saturday by President Hosni Mubarak to a post left vacant for more than 30 years-said he would work with "all political parties" to fight corruption and unemployment. He also announced a review of contested results in last year's parliamentary elections, which could include 25 disputed districts.
But for most of the protesters who have filled the streets of Cairo and other cities for the past week, those concessions are, as one said, "Too many years too late," and won't temper calls for a million Egyptians to turn out in the streets Tuesday to continue the campaign to oust Mubarak. On Monday evening, eyewitnesses said protesters installed two giant screens in downtown Cairo to broadcast a live feed from Al Jazeera in conjunction with Tuesday's turnout-undeterred by curfew bans or military presence on the streets of the Egyptian capital.
In response to street protests that began last Tuesday-and by Monday had resulted in the deaths of at least 164-Mubarak has elevated not only his intelligence chief but also key military commanders. He named air force chief Ahmed Shafik to be prime minister. The reshuffling signals the growing role Egypt's military will play in any transition, and likely overshadows Mubarak's plan to allow his son Gamal to succeed him later this year. Given the street peril and the reportedly poor health of the 82-year-old Mubarak, a military coup is possible, according to Stratfor's George Friedman, to secure an orderly power transition.
If Mubarak and the Egyptian military do not manage the transition, demonstrators may force early presidential elections (previously scheduled for September). If that happens, pro-democracy organizers could rally around Mohamed ElBaradei, part of the secular opposition, or behind the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that favors establishing Egypt as an Islamic state. Over the weekend Muslim Brotherhood leaders announced their allegiance to ElBaradei, but that is likely a play for legitimacy more than a change in aspirations.
The Muslim Brotherhood is credited with launching the terrorist group Hamas, and is currently banned as a political party in Egypt. But its members continue to operate a network of medical and social groups that curry favor with low-income Egyptians. Its website lists one of its goals as making the Quran the "sole reference point" for ordering the life of the "Muslim family, individual, community . . . and state."
ElBaradei, 69, seems an unlikely leader to such a revolution. An Egyptian lawyer and diplomat who headed the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for 12 years starting in 1997, he is regarded by many Egyptians as an outsider. His effort to challenge Mubarak during the 2010 parliamentary elections went nowhere. And his relationship with Western leaders has been cool: In the 2002 run-up to a U.S. war with Iraq, ElBaradei resisted pushing for unrestricted weapons inspections that the United States wanted, and in more recent years he earned criticism not only from the Bush administration but British and European leaders as well for underreporting Iran's growing nuclear capability.
All of this points to the dramatic change any shift in power in Egypt will represent to the United States. "An Islamist Egypt would be a strategic catastrophe," wrote Friedman. "Egypt is the center of gravity in the Arab world. This would not only change the dynamic of the Arab world, it would reverse U.S. strategy since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war."
But according to Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to former President George W. Bush, recent administrations have seen the need for change coming. "The United States pressed President Hosni Mubarak publicly and privately to encourage the emergence of non-Islamist political parties," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Monday. "Our calls for action were generally ignored and non- Islamist parties were persecuted and suppressed. The result was a political landscape that offered the Egyptian people just two choices: the government party (the National Democratic Party or NDP) and the underground Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. This sad outcome was President Mubarak's own creation."
Mubarak's entrenched power is the common denominator in riots across the region. He has held power since the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In Tunisia, ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been in office nearly 25 years. In Yemen, where tens of thousands of protesters also have turned out in the last week, President Ali Abdullah Saleh (also a U.S. ally), has been in power for more than 32 years.