Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt: Egyptians are living through glorious moments. They are living through ennobling, unchartered moments

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My heart bled last night as I watched with millions of Indians the disappointment and anger on the face of the Egyptian people, particularly the youth, as they heard with disbelief the defiant broadcast of discredited President Hosni Mubarak in which he dashed their expectation that he was about to quit in the face of the revolution inspired and led by young people, which has gathered momentum beyond expectation.

2. All sorts of speculative stories were flying across the electronic world. "Mubarak has resigned", "Mubarak has fled the country with US $ 2 billion", "he had pre-recorded his speech before he fled the country"etc. I was reminded of what Indian Air Force (IAF) officers of my vintage, who had served in Egypt and had known Mubarak as an instructor in the Egyptian Air Force Academy, had told me: "Mubarak is a man of great pride. He will die in the country and never flee from it."

3.Mubarak is not the discredited Tunisian President Ben Ali who fled to Saudi Arabia at the height of the recent protest movement against him. He sincerely believes that he played a role in giving pride back to the country after its humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 and that the Egyptian nation owes him a debt of gratitude for that. Mubarak is a hated despot. He is alleged to be corrupt. He suppressed the will of the people without remorse. But he is not a coward. He will not flee the country and die in foreign soil. That is the impression I had of him.

4. This impression was strengthened by the following Tweet from an unknown Egyptian disseminated by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the moments before Mubarak's televised speech: "Mubarak is too proud to step down.. to say it himself.. NO WAY.. honestly I would be surprised if…"

5. As I was awaiting his telecast, I was frequently visiting the Twitter site of Wael Ghonim, the young Egyptian Google executive, who has become a hero of the Egyptian people for leading the uprising with other young Egyptians, to see what were his feelings in those electrifying moments when the Egyptian people and the world with them had convinced themselves that Mubarak is gone or about to go. The following Tweets from Ghonim to his followers caught my attention:

* "Failure is not an option."
* "Guys, don't do much speculation for now, just wait and see. Long live Egypt!"
* "We are hoping that the "Friday of Martyrs" will be the world's largest funeral to bid farewell to 300 Egyptians"
* "Friday of martyrs is still on whatever happens today."
* "Started to rain in Cairo, and I am optimistic. Hoping that sky is crying from happiness"

6. Somehow, I had a gnawing feeling that he was not yet convinced that the exit of Mubarak was in sight. As I kept awake watching the glorious moments in Egypt on the TV and exchanging Tweets with my friends on the evolving situation in Egypt, I sent the following Tweet to my friends in my Twitter group (Ramanthink) : "Under Constitution, if Mub quits Speaker takes over. If he reports sick, Suleiman takes over.If he runs away, it is constitutional crisis."

7. I spent hours last week studying the Egyptian Constitution to see whether there is a constitutional way of bringing about the end of the Mubarak regime. I wrote as follows in my article of February 6 titled "The Egyptian Stand-off" available at :

"The problem is while the status quo can be easily changed in the ruling party and the unpopular leaders removed from positions of influence, it is difficult to change it in the Governmental set-up under the present Constitution, which clearly provides that if the President quits, the Speaker of the Parliament would be sworn in as the officiating President till fresh elections are held. Neither Lt.Gen.Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who was recently nominated as the Vice-President by Mubarak, nor El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, whom the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the secular opposition parties are prepared to support as the interim head till the elections are held, can officiate as the President because neither of them is an elected member of the Parliament and because of the specific provision in the Constitution that the Speaker would officiate. However, there is a provision in the Constitution under which Mubarak, while continuing to be the de jure President, can delegate the powers of the President to his Vice-President who will thus become the de facto President and could co-ordinate the arrangements for the elections without Mubarak playing any role in it.

It is doubtful whether the protesters would agree to such an arrangement because of the close association of Suleiman with Mubarak for nearly two decades and his equally close association with the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).....Thus, the position is: Suleiman is acceptable to Mubarak and his followers and the US as interim head of a transitional Government, but he may not be acceptable to the protesters. El Baradei may be acceptable to the protesters, but he cannot head the tranitional set-up under the present Constitution."

8. In his televised speech, Mubarak has chosen the constitutional way of easing himself out of the controversy, which has pitted him against his people. While expressing his determination to continue as the President till his term ends in September, he has said that he is transfering some of his powers as the President to the Vice-President without specifying which powers. He said: "I saw fit to delegate presidential jurisdictions to the Vice-President as defined by the constitution. I am certain that Egypt will overcome its crisis." The Egyptian Ambassador to the US, Sameh Shoukry, has been quoted by the BBC as saying Vice President Suleiman is now the "de facto head of state" following Mubarak's speech, but this has not been confirmed.

9. It is doubtful whether there can be a constitutional end to the present crisis. The only way of ending the crisis is for the Army to take over power, suspend the constitution and appoint a transitional Government headed by someone enjoying the confidence of the protesters to pave the way for the election of a new President. From the comments of the protesters and their leaders, it appears they may not be averse to the Army playing a role to bring about the end of Mubarak's regime here and now. But will the Army play the game fairly after the protesters go back to their studies or work and return to the barracks and co-operate with the transitional Govt? That is a question to which it will be difficult to give an answer.

10. Today, there are going to be millions and millions of angry and disappointed Egyptians out in the streets to observe the "Martyrs Day". Will they try to force the exit of Mubarak by marching to his palace? If they try to do so, can there be bloodshed?

11. Egyptians are living through glorious moments. They are living through ennobling moments. They are also living through unchartered moments----moments the like of which their country had not seen before. As Ghonim remarked in one of his Tweets : "I feel that their last line is being written, and soon we're taking the pen to start drawing our own future"

12. Let us wish the Egyptian people all the luck in the world as they try to write a new page in their history. They deserve to prevail. (11-2-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.