CAIRO — The government of Egypt’s authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, shook Monday night, first as the Egyptian Army declared that it would not use force against protesters demanding his ouster, and then as Mubarak’s most trusted adviser offered to talk with the political opposition.
The two statements, along with the damage to Egypt’s economy, appeared to weaken Mubarak’s grip on power just two weeks after a group of young political organizers posted an appeal on a Facebook page, calling for a day of protest in emulation of the revolution that pushed out another Arab strongman in Tunisia.
Hundreds of thousands have turned out into the streets over the last six days, and organizers called on millions of Egyptians to protest on Tuesday.
Within hours on Monday, the political landscape of the country shifted as decisively as it had at any moment in Mubarak’s three decades in power. The military seemed to aggressively assert itself as an arbiter between two irreconcilable forces: a popular uprising demanding Mubarak’s fall and his tenacious refusal to relinquish power.
How far Mubarak is offering to bend in negotiations remains to be seen, and given the potential ambiguities of both statements it is too soon to write off the survival of his government.
The dramatic turn of events began at about 9 p.m. when a uniformed military spokesman declared on state television that “The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.” Addressing the throngs who took to the streets, he declared that the military understood “the legitimacy of your demands” and “affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”
A roar of celebration rose up immediately from the crowd of thousands of protesters still lingering in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, where a television displayed the news. Opposition leaders argued that the phrase “the legitimacy of your demands” could only refer to the protests’ central request — Mubarak’s departure to make way for free elections.
About an hour later, Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right-hand man and newly named vice president, delivered another address, lasting just two minutes.
“I was assigned by the president today to contact all the political forces to start a dialogue about all the raised issues concerning constitutional and legislative reform,” he said, “and to find a way to clearly identify the proposed amendments and specific timings for implementing them.”
The protesters in the streets took Suleiman’s speech as essentially a capitulation to the army’s refusal to use force against them. “The army and the people want the collapse of the government,” they chanted in celebration.
“The army is not a puppet in the hands of anybody,” said Mahmoud Shokry, a former Egyptian diplomat and a friend of Suleiman. “It is not a puppet in the hands of Mubarak. It is not a puppet in the hands of Omar Suleiman. It is not a puppet in the hands of the defense secretary.”