CAIRO (Reuters) - Walking across Tahrir Square in central Cairo on Wednesday, it was hard to miss a huge slogan daubed in paint on the road for the military helicopters above to see: Game Over.
After Mubarak’s dramatic speech late on Tuesday, announcing he would not seek re-election in September but vowing to stay on for now to see through democratic reforms, the question was whose game was over.
The slogan was visible to passers-by for a reason: the number of protesters in the vast urban space where the battle for the street has taken place had dwindled significantly.
Mubarak had convinced many with his bravura performance that democracy was coming, the revolution was over and — with food and fuel running short — it was time to get back to normal.
In what appeared to be a coordinated plan, immediately after the speech was broadcast, thugs began to tussle with protesters in Alexandria and other cities.
State television blasted patriotic songs and images of Mubarak superimposed over a map of Egypt. Groups of pro-Mubarak youth appeared on some roads around Tahrir.
By Wednesday morning they were being bussed into various districts of the capital as the army withdrew from middle-class suburbs around the city.
The army spokesman appeared again on television in a speech reiterating the military would not use force against the people, but saying it was time for the country to return to normal.
The psychological message was that the protesters, if they continued, would be standing against the national consensus now that Mubarak has promised reforms and set his exit date.
Yet it was Mubarak’s government that cut the Internet and telephone lines, stopped the trains, and employed the might of the security forces to fight the protesters last Friday and then withdraw, leaving the arena to looting.
State media highlighted a climate of fear among the population with non-stop reports about gangs of outlaws who had escaped prison, while ignoring the protests. The most popular foreign TV station, Al Jazeera, said its signal was jammed.
The impression of many on the streets of Cairo was that Mubarak was arrogant, unrepentant and lacking magnanimity.
He offered no apology for closing down the country or for the deaths of dozens of people, whom he now termed “peaceful protesters” exercising their right to express their opinion.
He said he would institute constitutional reforms on term limits and eligibility for the presidency and had never intended to run for office again anyway, since he had done enough for the nation in this three decades in office.
As an army man, Mubarak said, he did not know how to betray Egypt. Others, he implied, do.
He had offered dialogue with the opposition but they had refused, “sticking to their particular agendas without concern for the current delicate circumstances of Egypt and its people.”
And he confounded those who thought this was going to be his resignation speech by declaring he wasn’t going anywhere — unlike Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled in the face of an uprising on January 14.
“This dear nation is my country, it is the country of all Egyptians, here I have lived and fought for its sake and I have defended its land, its sovereignty and interests and on this land I will die,” the 82-year-old leader said.
As for his faults, history would be his judge, he said — in other words, not the people or opposition loudmouths and wannabe revolutionaries led, in the government’s view, by the Muslim Brotherhood, and pumped up by what they consider to be their media outlet, Al Jazeera.
Mubarak talked as if he was the voice of Egypt itself — above the fray, telling the people what was best for them.
The rainbow coalition of opposition groups and ordinary Egyptians who gathered at Tahrir Square on Tuesday in their hundreds of thousands have perhaps just one more chance to recapture the momentum, on Friday.
They have called for big demonstrations then to demand a new democratic Egypt rather than a reformed version of the current system crafted by Mubarak and his old guard.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Paul Taylor