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Mubarak's talk of transition fails to calm Cairo's crowd

Protesters in Tahrir Square show the soles of their shoes, a grave insult in the Arab world, in response to President Mubarak's offer to not seek another term in office.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images/Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Egypt's growing and self-assured opposition movement will settle for nothing less, it seems, than the immediate and unconditional surrender of the country's embattled President Hosni Mubarak.

It wasn't enough that the 82-year-old leader went on state television Tuesday evening and said he would not seek re-election in September, that he would use the few months left to him to bring about a peaceful transition to a new leader and usher in a long list of economic and political reforms.

"Leave, leave, leave," the crowd of some 100,000 people in Cairo's Tahrir Square shouted as one in response. "Go, go, go."

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For the man who led Egypt's air force into battle against Israel in 1973, who was thrust into the president's chair when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981 and who kept the peace with Israel in the face of Arab criticism, it must have seemed a cruel response.

It was an extraordinary ending to an extraordinary day in which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in central squares around the country calling for the end of the Mubarak era. But when the end was announced, it wasn't enough.

In just the past few days, this unstructured populist uprising has scored remarkable victories. The Egyptian government was sacked and a new one created, the country's newly appointed Vice-President announced immediate discussions with the opposition to bring about political reform, and even the army announced it regarded the protesters' demands as legitimate and promised to do them no harm. Now the people had the President eating out of their hands.

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It's a condition that is spreading across the region. Two weeks ago it was Tunisia in which a long-serving president was forced from office by the combination of a populist uprising and a sympathetic self-interested military. On Tuesday it was Jordan, where King Abdullah sought to appease his population by dismissing his prime minister and bringing in another reform-minded political leader. Next week it may be Yemen, or Algeria or even Syria.

But what happens in Egypt, the most populous Arab country with a proud history and influential role, reverberates around the Arab world.

In an emotional 10-minute speech, Mr. Mubarak, President for more than 29 years, reminded the Egyptian people that he had fought for his country, "defended its soil, sovereignty and interests," and said he expected to be able to finish his term and his life in dignity.

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"I will die on the soil of Egypt," he said.

But the people who had danced on his grave all day in Tahrir (Liberation) Square were having none of it.

"He's up to the same old tricks," a long-time human rights activist said. "For 30 years he's been making big promises and failing to fulfill them."

"Who's to say something won't happen in the next eight months that will require him to stay on as President," said a determined young man in Tahrir Square. "No, he's got to go now."

While the President's words failed to appease protesters, some felt the concessions were sufficient.

"He's only asking that he go out in a dignified manner," a Western diplomat said. "I think most Egyptians believe their leader deserves that much."

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Indeed, shortly after the President's remarks groups of pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators clashed in the northern city of Alexandria. Groups shouting "Mubarak must stay" stormed onto the square where earlier a crowd of many tens of thousands had gathered to protest against the regime.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said he had spoken to Mr. Mubarak after the Egyptian President's speech and applauded his decision. Mr. Mubarak, he told reporters in a brief statement, "recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable."

Indeed, world financial markets have been telling the Egyptian leader the same thing for most of a week. Uncertainty over what may transpire in Egypt has roiled the markets and driven the price of oil to more than $100 a barrel. Egypt does not have large quantities of oil, but about 5 per cent of the world's supply passes through the Suez Canal.

Last week, in the early stages of the crisis, large amounts of capital were reported to have left the country, and banks here have been closed since last Thursday. The country's Central Bank issued a statement Monday assuring people that their savings were secure.

The stock market has also been closed over the past three working days, after dropping more than 16 per cent in value over a two-day period last week.

Pressure on Mr. Mubarak from the opposition forces is one thing, but pressure from banks and world markets is probably much greater.

"Last week, they told Mubarak that stability was what mattered and that he has to stay in office [to provide it]" said Hisham Kassem, former editor of the independent Al Masry al Youm newspaper. "This week they're telling him stability still is what matters, but that he has to leave office in order to provide it.

"I hope that those people who want Mubarak to go now have a lot of stamina," said Mr. Kassem, who was vice-president of the Al-Ghad party of Ayman Nour, who opposed Mr. Mubarak in the last presidential election. "Because Mubarak has got a lot of it."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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