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Will Stebbins Headshot

The Trouble With Hosni

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The hair dye and makeup should have been the clue.

What could have been the opening gambit in a negotiation for his departure, turned out to be the first salvo of the counterattack.

In his televised address Tuesday night, the Egyptian president was rejuvenated.

Without a grey hair on his 82-year-old head, and his wrinkle-free face the envy of a Hollywood actress, Hosni Mubarak looked ready for another 30 years.

He did offer the first public acknowledgment that his reign was coming to an end, but we should fear autocrats even when they are bearing concessions.

I had focused on the latter half of the speech. The part where he insisted that he would die in Egypt, as an understandable determination not to end up like Tunisian President Ben Ali, or the Shah of Iran before him, in a humiliating hop scotch around the world looking for safe harbor.

The reference to his military career was also resonant. It reminded everyone that he was, in the phrase of the late president Anwar Sadat, a 'glorious son of October.' Mubarak distinguished himself in the 1973 war with Israel, which redeemed the pride of the Egyptian army after the long humiliation of the 1967 defeat, and led to his appointment as vice president. Like Stalin and the great patriotic war, it's the one thing you can't take away from him.

It sounded like there might be room for negotiation. An early retirement, in exchange for the right to remain in Egypt with the dignity appropriate to a war veteran.

The key phrase however had been delivered right at the beginning. Mubarak expressed sympathy for the spontaneous articulations of popular discontent, but lamented that agent provocateurs had hijacked the demonstrations to sow chaos. This was an attempt to isolate the demonstrators, and drive a wedge between them and any wider popular identification with both their goals and strategies.

It was also a thinly veiled reference to the regime's most effective bogeyman, the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been careful to keep a low profile, in the knowledge that they would be a handy pretext for violent repression, but have lately become more confident and vocal.

Mubarak was drawing battle lines.

Far from losing the support of the army, it appears that they too have been playing a double game.

Their earlier announcement that they would not fire on the demonstrators was read as a sign that they were distancing themselves from the president. The subsequent demand from the same army spokesperson that the protestors go home, that their demands had been met, has the feel of a coordinated good cop/bad cop routine with Mubarak.

I always suspected that the reason the order to fire was not given was that it was a test of loyalty they were not confident of passing. Though the officer corps is the training ground for presidents, and they have been given an economic stake in the status quo, the Egyptian army is not monolithic. The privileges are unequally distributed, much like Egyptian society.

Everyone knows the army is key, and the demonstrators worked hard to win them over, and exploit any sympathy for their cause amongst the ranks, with campaigns such as 'hug a soldier.' The scenes of army officers carried on the shoulders of demonstrators must have given the high command pause.

The critical question continues to be whether the army will fire on demonstrators if so ordered. It does appear that the groundwork is being laid for such an order. The televised address to the demonstrators from the army spokesman could just as well have been directed at the troops. An attempt to establish a new narrative about the situation that would allow them to shoot: The demands of genuine protestors have been heard and met, anyone still out in the streets must be a troublemaker intent on violent revolution.

The clashes on Wednesday, coupled with the miraculous restoration of the Internet, is another sign that nothing is happening by accident. The regime has not given up on Mubarak, and is resolved to fight. The contours of its counteroffensive strategy are now emerging.

The army, conspicuously, stood by as the fighting erupted. The extraordinary scenes of camels and horses charging the demonstrators suggests the regime is making its own attempt to exploit class differences. The only time I have ever seen a camel in Cairo was on the Giza plateau, where an underclass ekes out a living hustling rides to tourists visiting the pyramids. The unrest has driven the tourists to the airport, and I imagine they would have welcomed a day's pay for harassing those responsible for the loss of their livelihood.

The return of the Internet has given Egyptian activists access to vital communication tools, but it has also, as many have pointed out, meant that television screens around the world have been flooded with scenes of violence. The activists themselves have pointed out that this was a strategic decision to replace the image of peaceful demonstration with one of chaos.

The message is that the demonstrators are a distinct group that do not reflect the totality of Egyptian popular opinion, and that their stubborn insistence on disrupting public life is leading to frustration, and instability. The army has asked everyone, nicely, to go home. If they continue to refuse, the logic goes, they will have to resort to sterner measures. The key question here is what sort of intervention, either international or domestic, would prevent this scenario from playing out, whose conclusion would be a bloody one.

Mubarak has so far resisted the growing international pressure, which has included the US tag team of Senator John Kerry and President Obama. Obama's message has been getting progressively stronger, but he is still speaking in the coded language of diplomacy. It remains to be seen what level of violence would change this.

Those keeping score, such as the indefatigable Sultan Al Qassemi, have reminded us that President Ben Ali made four speeches before he finally left Tunisia.

By that measure we are only halfway through, and the situation is far from settled.

It will be interesting to see how healthy Mubarak looks in his next address, for we know now that hair dye and makeup is war paint.