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Egypt Analysis: Hosni's Defiance

He came. He saw. He stayed.

The newsflashes had started about 5 p.m., Cairo time (1500 GMT), with the head of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party saying the President was probably making a speech to announce he was stepping down. Other leading Egyptian figures, including the Minister of Finance echoed the claim. The High Council of the Army met and issued Communique No. 1, seen as a signal that it was taking control. Even more stunning was the promise, given by General Hassan al-Rawani to protesters in the heart of Tahrir Square, that "all their demands would be met". In Washington, the Obama Administration telegraphed its approval of developments, both in leaks to the US media and in the open declaration of the Director of the CIA that Mubarak was out.

Confirmation came that Mubarak was speaking at 10 p.m. In Tahrir Square, the crowd loudly celebrated victory. After 17 days, what had begun as an unlikely challenge to the regime's authority had taken down a 30-year President.

Hosni did not show up at 10 p.m. or at 10:15. Still, the mood both on the ground and on-line was jovial. #ReasonsMubarakIsLate became one of the top --- and definitely the funniest --- hashtags on Twitter. Surely the President was just holding on for a few more minutes to power. At 10:45 p.m., State TV finally showed Mubarak at the podium. 

And four minutes later, everything shifted. This was our immediate summary as we heard --- disbelieving --- the words:

But now Mubarak shifts tone by saying he will not tolerate outside interference in Egyptian affairs. He continues that he has already conceded that he would not run in September's election.

So he says he has promised he will continue to "shoulder responsibility" until an elected Government is established in September.

From that point the President, having gotten his token regret for the deaths in the conflict out of the way, was digging in his heels. All the Mubarak themes --- his sacrifice for his country, his dedication to the great Egyptian nation, the priority of security, and the immediate menace of the foreign threat --- were put out once more. Even the one EA correspondent who predicted that Hosni would refuse to go could not hold back his shock: "Amazing. This is incredible. He is showing the middle finger to all."

Initially, the protesters couldn't believe it, either. But about three minutes later, their shouts of anger --- helpfully played in by Al Jazeera --- accompanied Mubarak's speech. By the end, shoes were waving and the mantra of the uprising, "He must leave. We won't leave", was the chorus for Mubarak's solo, "The will of people cannot be dented. Egypt will be back on its feet. We will not allow others to gloat over us."

Still, he had stayed. To the shock of many, he had not boarded the nearest plane but had repeated again that he would die on Egypt's soil.

Yet maybe we should not have been shocked. Rewind 10 days.

On Tuesday, 1 February, Hosni had given his previous speech. Just like this one, he made his audience wait. And just like this one, he was making that audience --- in Tahrir Square, across Egypt, and in Washington beyond all other foreign capitals --- wait because he was making some changes.

Mubarak was supposed to announce on that night, after days of escalating protests and 48 hours of exchanges with American representatives, that he was going to start the transition to a successor Government. He was supposed to give an indication not only that he would not stand for re-election in September but also that his son Gamal was not stepping up to take his place.

He did not do so. Although he affirmed he would be leaving in September, for the next seven months, the safety of Egypt would still be in his hands.

Hosni had double-crossed the Americans. President Obama, who was supposed to make a speech congratulating Mubarak on his wise and gracious steps, now called the Egyptian President to express his displeasure. No matter: Mubarak refused to meet a second time with Obama's envoy Frank Wisner, who retreated on a flight to the US the next morning. On that same day, the President made his position clear by unleashing "supporters" in a display of violence against the protesters.

Last night was Hosni's sequel. After his rejection of 1 February, the US strategy was to go back to Egypt's military. The Obama representatives said, publicly and privately: you are wise, you have been restrained (even amidst evidence that some in the military were far from restrained in detaining and beating demonstrators, activists, and journalists), and you must now persuade your President that there must be an "orderly and genuine transition to democracy".

As of 10 p.m. Cairo time on Thursday, the Americans thought the deal was done. An hour later, they saw otherwise. President Obama could only give a rather weak statement declaring that the US was still awaiting the confirmation of that "transition".

Some US analysts are already writing loudly about the need for Washington to exert "leverage", but the reality is that the Obama camp may not have any leverage left, that is, unless it moves to cut off the billion-plus in military aid given to Cairo.

No, the big question and possible fallout from Mubarak's speech is elsewhere. For last night, he stiffed not only the US but at least some in his own military. The High Council meeting and the commander's appearance in Tahrir Square --- "all your demands will be met" --- were signalling that the military, with or without the support of Vice President Suleiman, were close to easing Mubarak into retirement. Hosni threw that signal back not only at the protesters but also at some guys who wear badges and ribbons on their chests.

Two weeks ago, we wrote that the military had given Mubarak a "breathing space". Well, last night, as it appeared he was being choked out of power, Mubarak got his breath not through the clear backing of the commanders but by shaking aside the grip they may have been exerting.

Hosni's ultimate defiance --- for all those protesters across Egypt, for all the hype about American influence --- was expressed towards the military in which he began his career and made those sacrifices he loudly trumpeted last evening.

"Go on, take me out," he was saying. "I will be buried on Egyptian soil." 

Will the military, reluctant to take the political front seat so far, bury Hosni now rather than later? There is the question on this morning after Mubarak's Last(?) stand.

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