Thursday was a tough day for U.S. intelligence on Capitol Hill. First, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the Muslim Brotherhood a "largely secular" organization. Then, CIA director Leon Panetta erroneously predicted to Congress that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would finally announce his departure after more than two straight weeks of protests in Cairo.
It was an even tougher day for the Egyptian people. Hundreds of thousands of giddy protesters assembled in Tahrir Square after two grueling weeks of unrest to celebrate what they believed to be Mubarak's imminent departure, only to find that Mubarak had other plans.
Dictators do not relinquish power willingly, nor do they let others determine the political narrative. Mubarak seeks to leave on his own terms. In his mind, he had already made one major concession: leaving in September without running again, and without installing his son, Gamal, as his successor. This was not enough for the angry masses, however. So, on Thursday night, he offered up another one: transferring an ambiguous portfolio of his presidential powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman. Perhaps Mubarak believed that the move might placate the Egyptian people, who would then let him live out his final term in office. Rumored to be ill, Mubarak may simply wish to die as president.
But Mubarak's speech struck the wrong chords. It offered virtually nothing specific about a way forward. And it failed to address the opposition's core questions of reform.The protesters are now enraged. Some have even crossed a perceived red line, and have marched to the presidential palace.
There are analysts who say that the dramatic anti-climax of Mubarak's Thursday night announcement was a deliberate attempt to incite Egyptian protesters violence. With violence on the streets, Mubarak could then instruct his security forces to crack down in the name of law and order. This is not impossible. However, the Egyptian people are nothing if not patient. While they are frustrated, the general sense on the streets is that their cause will ultimately prevail. Mubarak knows this. He also knows that he can't keep appearing on television to offer concessions that fail to resolve this crisis.
With more protests on the way, Mubarak may be running out of moves. But this is not necessarily good news. The White House is also out of leverage, and can't seem to find a way to get the Egyptian military to hand over control to a democratic caretaker government, which is what protesters are demanding. As this stalemate continues, it's hard not to wonder if our intelligence services have failed to identify new lurking dangers. Indeed, power vacuums rarely bring good things.