Mubarak Misses His Moment

What an incredible and bizarre Thursday afternoon it must have been in Cairo.

Thousands are massed in Tahrir Square, waving banners and flags, dancing and cheering as they await a speech by President Hosni Mubarak. They have been told he will resign. They are overjoyed and eager to act out their joy for each other, for the cameras, for history.

The hours tick by, and it’s evening. The American anchors, playing for time, keep saying that they have been told the speech is coming, “expected any minute now.” But after a while you can hear something in their voices, some creeping doubt, and you know they’re wondering: “As I talk and people dance, is a military coup taking place in the palace? What’s happening? Why isn’t he speaking?”

And then the speech, a long, confusing address that seems to say nothing. And made worse by the atmospherics: the Dracula lighting, the dark-dyed hair and pale face of the president, the small, seemingly empty studio apart from everyone and everything. In attempting to assert command, he seemed utterly besieged.

At first it seemed he was resigning, and there were cheers. But by the end it seemed he was not, and there was anger and some bitterness. In the hours that followed, Egyptia’s ambassador to Washington claimed Mr. Mubarak had in effect stepped down, leaving the vice president as “de facto” leader.

As I write, it continues to be unclear exactly what he said, or rather what he meant. He may or may not continue functioning as a leader to some greater or lesser degree. He may or may not be functioning as commander of the nation’s armed forces. Talk about lost in translation.

All of which left one in mind of what Talleyrand said about Napoleon’s execution of the duke of Enghien: “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.” What a historic mistake Mr. Mubarak made. What a clumsy misreading of his people he made in not clearly and definitively stepping down.

The speech suggested that he was trying to survive by show business—to buy off history with an emotional, effusive and meandering address when the people of his country expected, hoped for, and had been primed for a blunt resignation. Even the translator sounded freaked out—confused, scattered, mildly frantic.

Mr. Mubarak spoke, he said, as “a father to his sons and daughters”: “I am proud of you.” He promised to punish those in his government who had moved violently against protestors, those “innocent victims.” That has “broken my heart.” The demands of those who want democracy are “just and legitimate.”

He repeated the promise he made weeks ago that he will not be a candidate in the September election. He tried to make this sound new. Power will go to “whoever the electorate chooses.” He wants a “smooth transition.” We have started a “dialogue.” We need to discuss a “road map” to peaceful transition. We are studying amendments to the constitution. His “priority” is to restore the confidence of the citizenry. He will maintain the economy.

“It’s not about me, Hosni Mubarak,” he said. “It’s about Egypt.” What followed was a tribute to himself. He has seen war. “I have preserved my dignity.” He will look to “the higher interests of Egypt.” “I am telling you again that I have lived for this homeland.”

At the end I thought: Does he not understand the people of his country? They are in revolution. They want democracy and the rule of law. They want the old ways to be over. They want him gone. They want to build something better in his regime’s place.

At a time like this, a leader must not only do the right thing, he must do it clearly. And the right thing, really, was clear. There was only one thing for Mr. Mubarak to say, and it is the statement those who wish his nation well would have been hoping to hear. He could have saved the day, acknowledged the inevitable, and spared his country a tipping point into violence.

He should have spoken of his honest love of the nation he has served for more than half a century and led for 30 years. There is no doubting he loves it. But he has become the face of oppression, and he knows it.

He should have spoken of his respect for the people of Egypt and his knowledge of the political arrangements they not only desire but deserve. And so, he could have said, he will step down, resign, leave office as of midnight tonight. His place will be taken, according to the Egyptian Constitution, by the vice president, Omar Suleiman. But this will only be temporary. Not only will Mr. Mubarak, not be a candidate for any office in the scheduled September elections, neither will Mr. Suleiman.

“My government is over,” Mr. Mubarak might have said. “Between now and the September elections, the people of Egypt will have a time of peaceful transition. New candidates for leadership will rise. Egypt, seven months from now, will choose from among them. Egypt will be free and democratic.” He could have added that he hopes to be remembered by history as a leader who did many good things, and hopes to be forgiven by the people for those things that, we all admit, were not good.

End of story. And the people would have forgiven him. Many would have thanked him.

Instead, a mess. Confusion. Anger. And the possibility that what has been, up to this point ,a revolution marked by efforts to maintain nonviolence—efforts made on both sides—will tip in the other direction.

The reaction from Tahrir Square was immediate. They were screaming, “Leave, leave!” On CNN a young protestor said, “This guy doesn’t want to leave the country in peace.”

A great question, of course, is where the famous generals of Egypt, the military officers who are broadly acknowledged to be and admired as sophisticated, secular and a source of stability, stand. Did they attempt to get Mr. Mubarak to step down, only to fail? If the people of Egypt, in their frustration, take more angrily to the streets, and violently, whose side will they be on? Whom will they protect?

One has the sad sense that a moment was missed. Mr. Mubarak could have turned everything around, and graciously been a force for calm, peace and progress. When you miss a moment like that, when you let it pass, when you bobble it, new dangers come forward. If Mr. Mubarak had clearly departed, and made it clear that his successor’s time in the presidency would be limited, pro-democracy protestors probably would have accepted it.

Now? All bets are off.

History hands you a moment like this as a gift. When you meet it, when you satisfy its requirements, it is a beautiful thing to see. When you fumble it in your vanity and ego, in your confusion and pride, in your misguided attempts at cleverness, it is a sad thing to see. And it has repercussions.