Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has learned a few things during his 30 years in power. One of them is how to divide those who oppose him. In recent days, he has done this masterfully, and has regained some leverage. This, coupled with a lack of decipherable direction from the White House, gives the impression that Mubarak may yet emerge the victor in this drama.
It began on Saturday, when Mubarak tasked his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, to invite the "old guard" political parties for a meeting. This included the secular Wafd party, the Leftist Tagammu, and the Arab nationalist Nasserite party. After meeting with the vice president, the parties agreed to a plan in which Mubarak's government would initiate a process of political reform. Predictably, the grass roots of these parties who remain skeptical of Mubarak were furious. Indeed, they view any change from this regime as cosmetic only, and demand nothing short of Mubarak's departure.
Thus, in one bold stroke, Mubarak divided Egypt's traditional parties among themselves.
The next day, Mubarak was at it again. Suleiman held another meeting, this time with the Muslim Brotherhood, civil society groups, some protest leaders, and others. But the group was not representative. The famous political reformer Ayman Nour was not invited, and Osama Ghazali Harb of the Democratic Front Party refused to attend. More importantly, the regime invited former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change, but blocked ElBaradei, himself, from attending.
The opposition, without its top leaders, was again divided. But unlike the traditional parties, the opposition groups balked at the regime's proposals. However, they also did not agree among themselves about the role of the Mubarak regime in the reform process.
Score again for autocrat.
Capitalizing on the confusion, Mubarak issued a presidential decree on Monday, announcing that his regime was set to enact the reforms he has been promising since this crisis began. He gave the impression that he was doing so with the blessing of the opposition.
Predictably, the protestors in Cairo were furious. The decree, along with the recent release of Google executive Wael Ghonim, has re-energized the masses. Protests of increased intensity and volume are now expected in the days to come. So, although Mubarak has gained leverage, the tide may turn again.
But Egypt's opposition lacks support from Washington. To say that the White House does not have a cohesive Egypt policy is an understatement. After initial silence, followed by calls for Mubarak's swift removal, the Obama Administration now appears to be leaning toward a more gradual transition that Mubarak may lead.
Thus, Mubarak has battled back from what appeared to be a certain demise just two weeks ago. He has done so with the cynicism of a 30-year dictator. But he has also done so with the help of U.S. leadership that can't seem to settle on a way forward.