After years of speculation and rumour about what might happen when their octogenarian president, Hosni Mubarak, finally leaves office, Egyptians suddenly find themselves facing a new era without Mubarak at the helm. But no less clear on who will replace him.

Following days of mass demonstrations across the country, Mubarak announced on 1 February he will not contest elections in September. With the protests become increasingly violent, that day may be even closer.

The unprecedented unrest beginning on 25 January, Egypt’s National Police Day, were the largest seen in the country since rioting over the price of bread in the 1970s. The protests appear firmly rooted in Egypt’s squeezed middle class. Initially, protesters demanded an end to the Emergency Law that has been in place almost constantly since 1967.

[Mubarak’s] tardiness frustrated the people and did nothing to diffuse the situation

Cairo-based source

The law is now older than the majority of Egyptians and the stability that it has offered Mubarak, Egypt and the wider region since the 1980s for many now feels like brutality, corruption and decay. As the unrest gathered momentum after Friday prayers on 28 January, the protesters were calling for an immediate end to the Mubarak regime.

Shallow promises

Mubarak’s handling of the protests has exposed his frailties, although he could hardly have been prepared for the scale of unrest. With millions of people waiting for him to address the nation on state television shortly after riots began on 25 January at 6pm, he delayed his speech offering Egyptians the possibility of change until past midnight. 

“His tardiness frustrated the people and did nothing to diffuse the situation. He appointed a vice-president the following day, but it was too late. It may have appeased the people had it come earlier,” says a Cairo-based source.

His announcements promising political and economic reform did not go far enough for the protesters. Simply dismissing his cabinet, which served only to carry out his instructions, was not going to make the crowds go home.

“I also stress the need for moving seriously and effectively towards political reforms, in the constitution and legislation, via extensive dialogue with the parties, allowing their wider participation,” Mubarak wrote in a letter to his new prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, which he read on state television. For the protesters, Mubarak’s promises will not be sufficient without a credible commitment to fundamental reforms at the political level. Abolition of emergency laws and introducing term limits will ensure the next president cannot stay in power for another 30 years.

The problem for Egypt is there is no popular opposition figure to take Mubarak’s place. During more than 30 years of emergency rule, Mubarak has ensured that there was no one in the country capable of building a substantial following to challenge his authority. As a result, the regime lacks a personality it can turn to as a sign of compromise and change. “It is a key thing for confidence issues, the presidency will not be going to Mubarak’s son and key figures in the Egyptian political arena like Ahmed Ezz [chairman of Ezz Steel] – who was known for his corruption has resigned from his position in parliament,” says a source based in Cairo.

Next president of Egypt

There was speculation that the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak was being groomed to take over the Arab republic and much of the protesters’ frustration has been directed at him.

The 75-year-old Omar Suleiman, who Mubarak has put forward as his first vice-president is just as unacceptable for the protesters. Formerly head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) and Egypt’s chief negotiator with Israel, Mubarak could hardly have chosen a less accommodating face to appease the crowds. His appointment is meant to reassure Egypt’s allies, including Israel of the continuation of Cairo’s current foreign policy if he is forced out of office.

Outside Mubarak’s inner circle, the military is the most likely source for a new leader from within the existing regime. They stand to lose a great deal if Mubarak is deposed. At the same time, his continued reign now poses just as much threat to their position.

“The military intervened in 1952 and have effectively been in power since then. Since then it has been generals in suits. They have more at stake than just preserving Mubarak. Two thirds of the country’s provincial governors are former generals,” says John Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the US’ Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“The military is a taboo subject in Egypt. You can’t talk about the generals running businesses and making loads of money. The army is Egypt. The army is the regime,” says a source from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the protests have centred.

Much of the protesters’ initial anger was directed at the police force and the 300,000-strong Central Security Forces (CSF). In contrast, the army is widely respected and, for the opposition movement, perhaps seen as the only real gateway to a post-Mubarak Egypt. While the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party is still smouldering, the army’s tanks in the capital have been splattered with graffiti and crowds have greeted their crews as patriots.

The military appears to be giving Mubarak time to prepare his exit. Shafiq, a former air force chief and civil aviation minister, has been appointed prime minister and will form a new government. How much time they are willing to give Mubarak while he is the source of anger fuelling the unrest is unknown.

This perception remains intact, but how long it can hold if the military is forced to choose sides is unknown. Whether the army is willing to execute its orders fully if violence escalates is difficult to judge. If they remain united, the government could reassert itself. But any hint of discord between the generals and rank and file soldiers facing the demonstrators could result in chaos.

Despite being active in Egyptian politics for the best part of six decades, the military has left a small political profile from its leaders. They will now be more visible and taking on a new role. How they seek to integrate the opposition’s demands is difficult to predict. It is hard to gauge just what they are thinking. The army could choose to support a military government to manage the transition towards possible early parliamentary elections. Here again, there are great uncertainties as to who would secure power in an open political process.

Outside the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition party, although they are not united on how they should proceed. No opposition can succeed without their broad based support, but likewise the Muslim Brotherhood needs other parties to appear less threatening, both at home and abroad.

The possibility of a radical Muslim Brotherhood government as the only alternative to Mubarak has been the narrative favoured by his regime, playing to fears that an extremely hostile government will emerge with an anti-Western outlook. Over the past few years, the Egyptian regime has launched one of the most extensive crackdowns on the group since the 1960s. If included in a future government, the military is likely to see to it that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot forge a dominant role.

Leadership dearth in Egypt

Another option is Mohamed ElBaradei, a former director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, who has become a focal point for some protesters. He is seen in the West as a potential presidential candidate, but lacks real support in Egypt.

“There is no one with any credibility, including ElBaradei. Even the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] don’t have anyone with any charisma,” says another source in Cairo.

“The people are aware of ElBaradei, but there are some concerns against him – he’s never lived in Egypt, he saw through 30 years of corruption and never commented on it.  How can he feel what the Egyptians are suffering?” says another.

The spontaneous Twitter and Facebook-inspired demonstrations have been effective in the short term, but it will be difficult to sustain and escalate without a leader to focus on. As the situation on the street becomes heated, Mubarak and the powerful military will be hoping the opposition remains without direction.