Mubarak Exit: Egypt President Misses Chance For Dignified Departure

02/02/2011 07:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WASHINGTON — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak missed his cue for a dignified exit from 30 years of iron-fisted rule.

And the mainly peaceful street revolution, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding Mubarak's immediate resignation, turned violent Wednesday when several thousand Mubarak supporters, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, attacked anti-government protesters.

The uprising in Egyptian streets – now in a second week – was taking a dangerous, but not surprising, new turn. In chaotic scenes, the two sides pelted each other with stones, and protesters dragged attackers off their horses.

The hours of turmoil were the first significant violence between supporters of the two camps in more than a week of anti-government protests. About 10,000 anti-Mubarak protesters were in the city's main gathering place, Tahrir Square, defying a call for them to disperse. Wednesday afternoon, about 3,000 Mubarak supporters broke through a human chain of anti-government protesters trying to defend fellow demonstrators in the square.

By saying he would leave later instead of now, Mubarak had infuriated the crowds numbering hundreds of thousands massed to demand his immediate resignation. Mubarak promised Tuesday not to run again for the presidency in September, but the crowds want him out immediately.

The mainly peaceful street revolution now confronts the danger of even broader violence after Mubarak's vow to restore order. That likely will become the work of his despised and brutal police. They face masses of Egyptians scornful of Mubarak's promise of reforms to ensure a peaceful transition to a new leadership.

Mubarak's decision to stubbornly hold on to power, if even for a few more months, only deepened what has become the biggest foreign policy crisis to confront President Barack Obama. The American president watched in Washington as Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people.

Obama spoke to Mubarak after the Egyptian's address and then went to the microphones himself. He said he wants an "orderly transition" to democratic rule in Egypt.

"It must begin now," Obama said.

A day earlier, Obama's envoy had traveled to Cairo to tell Mubarak gently but firmly that his time in power was at an end.

Washington fears even further instability in the Middle East, where other less-than-democratic leaders were watching too, watching as the winds of a street revolution that began in Tunisia in December quickly swept from the west to Egypt.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II disbanded his government and appointed a new prime minister, promising quick action on reforms and moves to ease rising prices.

Demonstrations have likewise flared in Yemen, on the tip of the Saudi peninsula, and opposition figures were threatening to go into the streets in Syria.

In Israel, which has counted on its 30-year-old peace treaty with the most-populous Arab country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now confronts a new unknown in the Jewish state's very dangerous neighborhood.

The 82-year-old Mubarak, who has been one of the United States' most steadfast and valued allies in the Middle East, defiantly declared his intention to die on Egyptian soil, ruling out flight abroad in the face of the uprising.

He must have been thinking of the ouster of Tunisia's former dictator, who fled to Saudi Arabia last month after weeks of street protests.

Three decades ago, the Shah of Iran – a key Cold War ally of Washington – fled to Egypt in the face of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.

"This dear nation . is where I lived. I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History will judge me like it did others," Mubarak said.

As Mubarak spoke late Tuesday, the quarter million protesters on Cairo's main square watched on a giant television screen, then booed. Some waved their shoes over the heads in a sign of contempt. "Go, go, go! We are not leaving until he leaves," they chanted.

In Washington, a senior Arab diplomat said Mubarak simply couldn't bring himself to resign.

"Mubarak is reconciled to being a former president but not to being a deposed president," the envoy said. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Mubarak's military has been overlooking the demonstrations for days now, promising it would not open fire on the protesters. It now faces a major test, perhaps a choice between the people and Mubarak.

The president's decision to keep grasping for his once-unchallenged power was certain only to fuel continued street protests, perhaps causing them to grow and spread across the city.

What then? Will the Army, which has promised not to shoot, open fire? Or will they battle on behalf of demonstrators, who now are certainly headed toward a confrontation with an angry police force and are already facing Mubarak supporters in the streets.

A missed cue to exit the Egyptian stage may have signaled many more acts in a Middle Eastern drama that could turn into the story of a spreading revolution.


EDITOR'S NOTE – Steven R. Hurst has covered foreign affairs for 30 years.