CAIRO (Reuters) - Is Hosni Mubarak’s time up after 30 years as Egypt’s undisputed and internationally legitimized leader?
After a week of Egypt’s enraged and predominantly young people battling his security forces in the streets of Cairo and other cities, he is a shadow of his former Pharaonic self.
He has for the first time had to name a vice-president from the military, relinquishing any dream he may have had of naming his banker son Gamal as successor, and appointed a new government headed by a former airforce chief, a job he once held himself.
Egyptians in revolt on the streets of Cairo, in defiance of curfews, martial law and the army, are not impressed. They insist Mubarak must go. But there is little idea of what may follow, or whether Mubarak’s belated promises of reform will translate into the real change Egyptians clearly yearn for.
Is Hosni Mubarak staying or leaving? Is there going to be change or not? Is a new era of freedom and democracy on its way or is it more of the same for Egyptians?
Analysts, ordinary Egyptians and opposition leaders say that if the popular upheaval demanding Mubarak quit after three decades of commanding an ossified system is not adequate warning enough to make the regime introduce urgent change, what will be?
In a week of stunning protests that have shaken Mubarak’s rule and alarmed Arab rulers, more than 100 people have been killed and chaos has reigned in Egypt’s streets, Mubarak has offered a tantalizing glimpse he may step down and 80 million long-suffering Egyptians are caught between their yearning for freedom and their fear of chaos.
Mubarak is nonetheless showing every sign of clinging to power at any cost. On Sunday he sent warplanes swarming in intimidatory waves over Cairo and troops and tanks into city streets in a show of force to scare off Egyptian protesters, and terrify the population into fearing any change of regime.
Protesters shouting “freedom, democracy, change,” sensed something ominous about Mubarak’s appointment of his intelligence chief as his vice-president, and likely successor, and a former air force chief as his new prime minister.
The crowds pouring into the streets clearly have no desire to see Mubarak’s three decades of autocratic rule replaced by a military line-up featuring his closest cronies.
“We don’t want Mubarak and his cronies. He just shuffled the deck. This won’t bring change,” said Saad Khalifa. “He and his children have milked the country and its wealth. He doesn’t want to leave. All these changes he made are sedatives.”
Egypt’s sprawling armed forces -- the world’s 10th biggest at more than 468,000-strong, which have received $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid since Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 -- have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy.
Mubarak, who once appeared to have surmounted that legacy, has now had to fall back on the army as his last line of defense, putting military men into the top government posts and removing a facade of civilian rule that went up in flames with the torching of his ruling National Democratic Party offices.
But many analysts saw Mubarak’s nomination of a successor, after refusing to do so for 30 years, as a diminution of his powers. They said Mubarak no longer has the discretionary power he enjoyed for long, sparking speculation that he could be being pushed toward a military-approved handover of power.
“The army is in a tight spot and they are deciding what to do about the president,” said Faysal Itani of Exclusive Analysis.
“The army may see Mubarak as a liability but they won’t want to see him flee with his tail between his legs like Ben Ali. I think they would like to see him go but in an orderly fashion.”
They said whether Mubarak stays or goes ahead of the presidential vote set for September this year will be dictated by the army, which could insist that he does not stand.
“I think Mubarak is going but he is not going tomorrow,” said Middle East commentator Rami Khouri. “This is definitely a signal that he (Mubarak) personally and his entire system have been significantly challenged.”
“The appointments he made are not very encouraging. They do not bode well. The signs are clear that this system has been challenged in a very dramatic way,” Khouri added.
Despite the show of force by Mubarak and his military, the picture on the streets is unnerving. Protesters, albeit fewer in number than last week, continue their defiance. Another inhibiting factor are the angry mobs spreading fear in the capital, looting, ransacking and vandalizing property.
The scene in the streets of Cairo are reminiscent of Baghdad after the fall of Saddam and Beirut in its civil war days, as well as Tunisia this month -- unrest, looting and disorder.
The stability Mubarak reveled in for three decades crumbled in a few days, raising big questions about the inefficiency and inability of the well-financed police and security forces in maintaining law and order.
In a clear expression of concern, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States wanted to see “orderly transition” through free and fair elections in its key ally and the Arab world’s most populous nation.
“We ... don’t want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy but to oppression and the end of the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” Clinton told Fox News Sunday.
Egyptians from across the political spectrum say nothing less than an overhaul of the power structure will stave off another crisis.
As in Tunisia, Egypt’s exploding young population, most of them underemployed and frustrated by oppression at the hands of a corrupt and rapacious elite, demand a complete clear-out of the old guard, not just a reshuffle of the governing class.
Any serious change will also have to set in motion plans to eradicate Egypt’s poverty where 40 percent live on $2 a day, open the political arena to the opposition and end an emergency law that allows police to round up activists, torture and try them in military courts without charge.
“Change is inevitable,” said Khouri. “On every level Egypt is a bankrupt country. This is the result of the mismanagement of the economy, their mediocre policies, abuse of power and mistreatment of their own people.”
Analysts say Egypt’s political future cannot exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most influential and organized Islamist opposition, who discretely joined protests driven by Web-savvy, more educated, middle class Egyptians.
The Brotherhood, from long experience of confrontation with the authorities, is wary of commitment to protests. If it overreaches, it risks a harsher crackdown under pressure from Western governments worried about an Islamist takeover.
The Brotherhood, like other Islamist groups in many Arab countries, has cold feet about governing. Its strategy focuses on a political reform agenda shared by other groups -- free and fair elections, rule of law, a new constitution.
But that is what Egyptians as a whole now appear to be demanding.
Editing by Jon Boyle