I woke up on Thursday morning to news reports that this was to be the day that Hosni Mubarak would officially step down as president. Al-Jazeera was stating that the Egyptian military, after learning that Mubarak was planning to pass on his responsibilities to Vice President Omar Suleiman, was intervening to "safeguard the nation" and to ensure that the protesters would see their demands met. Apparently, the military brass had "reservations" about this transfer of power to Mr. Suleiman, indicating a possible split between the two.
All morning and afternoon, the group that had gathered for NYU's "Egypt Rising" event was on the edge of their seats waiting for Mr. Mubarak to appear on state television and announce his official abdication. The euphoria and delirium of the hundreds of thousands that had gathered in Tahrir Square was palpable, as it seemed an all out certainty that this would be Mubarak's last day in power.
Finally, Mubarak appeared on state television and astonished millions of viewers by stating that he was not in fact stepping down, but merely delegating more responsibility to Mr. Suleiman. It made me think of the conversation I had had with a cabbie in Cairo over the summer, where he claimed that Mubarak was as stubborn as a "gamoos" (water buffalo). His stubbornness was certainly on full display Thursday afternoon.
So why the reports that Mubarak would abdicate, only to find out that he is simply delegating more authority to his vice president? It was already rather clear this week that Suleiman was calling most of the shots - he was the one leading the talks with the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition figures. It had already seemed like Mubarak, having lost such a vast amount of political capital, was receding into the background and biding his time until September's elections. So being told that he intends to give Suleiman more responsibility is nothing new.
So what's the deal? Is he effectively calling everyone's bluff (the protesters, the military, the international community)? Is he purposely provoking more protests, hoping that they lead to chaos and generate nostalgia for the "stability" of the olden days?
And finally, what's the deal with the military? Its statements from earlier Thursday that it was intervening to "safeguard the nation" have engendered so much confusion. Is it waiting for the scale to tip a little further, giving them the leverage to make their move? Friday's protests should be telling in that regard, because they will undoubtedly prove to be the most intense yet. It looks like the oft repeated slogan that "the army and the people are one" will finally be be put to the test.