UPDATE 2120 GMT: While the protesters' reaction to the Mubarak speech is the lead story tonight, the 2nd story may be the breakdown of talks between US officials and the Egyptian President.
It was notable tonight that there was a delay of more than an hour between the announcement that Mubarak was about to speak and his actual appearance. In that hour, Obama's people not only put out the news that the President --- through the envoy Frank Wisner --- had asked Mubarak to refrain from standing for re-election in September, they added to reporters that they had asked Mubarak to rule out any campaign by his son Gamal.
The White House delayed a press briefing, expecting to welcome a suitable Mubarak announcement, but time dragged on. The Egyptian President did not appear, and the White House press briefing was scrubbed.
Whether Mubarak rewrote his speech in that hour is not known, but his defiance and refusal to announce a transition was not a rejection of the millions of his people who turned out today. It was also a rebuff to the US Government.
Protesters in Tahrir Square were screaming, "Not enough!", as they heard the speech. I'm begging some folks in Washington were doing so as well.
Here's an interesting fact about Frank G. Wisner, Jr., the former US Ambassador to Egypt and now President Obama's special envoy, as he starts talks in Cairo today with the Egyptian Government....
His father Frank G. Wisner, Sr., was quite the specialist in regime change. Frank G. Wisner, Sr., headed up covert operations at the CIA in the late 1940s and 1950s. His schemes were legendary, even if most of them failed: Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, East Berlin, Hungary 1956.
So is Wisner Junior spearheading a 21st-century regime change effort? Or is the Obama Administration propping up President Mubarak? Your 4-point guide:
1. THE MESSAGE TO MUBARAK: YOU'VE GOT TO GO...SOON
The general line put out from Washington yesterday was that officials were "calling contacts in the Egyptian government, military and opposition to urge movement toward a transitional process leading to free elections".
However, this got more specific after a meeting between Administration officials, including Dennis Ross of the National Security Council, and outside analysts in the morning: "Recogniz[ing] that time is not our friend," said one of the analysts, "they are trying to find ways to speed [the transition] up."
That's where Wisner's trip comes in. The US Government cannot publicly put the knife into its long-time ally. Some, such as the Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne, pressed for an open rejection of Mubarak but the Administration response was "We can't be seen as picking a winner. We can't be seen as telling a leader to go." So the envoy will be putting this to the President in private.
Indeed, the message "Soon" was being framed for others beyond Mubarak: "The message [is to] those who would push [Mubarak] out. If you want to see a new Egypt, and want your place in it, here's your chance."
2. VICE PRESIDENT SULEIMAN IS WASHINGTON'S TRANSITION MAN
As head of Egyptian intelligence, new Vice President Omar Suleiman worked closely with US officials on issues such as the Israel-Palestine and Palestinian reconciliations talks and also on rendition and "enhanced interrogation" of suspects in the War on Terror.
Now Suleiman takes on a new role. He has to step up as Mubarak goes, but not as a long-term successor: "Multiple attendees said the White House staff expressed skepticism that [Suleiman] would emerge as the next leader of Egypt, but acknowledged that he would be influential during the transition process."
Think Tunisia, where President Ben Ali was ousted with a six-month period --- in theory and hopefully in practice --- between the formation of a transitional Cabinet and new elections.
3. TELLING THE MILITARY TO HOLD ITS FIRE
As we suspected on Sunday, Washington has been putting out the message through various channels that force should not be used against the protesters, possibly blocking Mubarak's order. The head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, meeting his Egyptian counterpart and high-ranking officers in Washington this weekend,""thanked them for their professionalism....That's the kind of behavior we'd like to see."
4. BUT IT'S AN UNCLEAR FUTURE
Still, the Administration's path seems only to be laid to the point of Mubarak's departure. After that, the politics gets very fuzzy. One of the analysts explained: "There was no narrative of change or reform that can involve Mubarak. They see Suleiman as their guy for now, but there's also doubt about Suleiman's ongoing legitimacy to be a caretaker for an orderly transition. There's also doubt about what an organized process would be."
Although Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the National Association for Change, is a familiar presence in "the West" and has been named by an opposition coalition to lead political discussions, US officials face a series of issues: 1) El Baradei's base of support inside Egypt is still far from certain; 2) there is domestic opposition in the US to any embrace of the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency; and, most importantly, 3) any public US backing of a political movement could put a black mark upon it rather than advancing it.
So, beyond Wisner's mission, there is no indication of an American post-Mubarak strategy. Still, one interesting shift: the Administration is letting it be known that --- until the case with Hamas in Gaza --- it will not turn its back on the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political discussions.