When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to stay out of the next election, for the moment anticipated in the fall, he figured to change the balance of power in the streets. Knowing that Mubarak was ostensibly committed to leave office, people out in the streets are recalculating how urgent their grievances are. Military officers who promised not to fire on peaceful protesters are now telling the crowds to go home, while Mubarak supporters are trying to take to the streets themselves.
Mubarak’s promise to leave office plays out differently for the people who have been agitating for his departure. While some factions see his promise to depart in September as far too little (and too unreliable), and want to escalate their efforts to get him out–now. Others see his promised exit from the national stage as the opportunity to plan a transition and focus on what kind of regime replaces him. For the moment, Mubarak’s commitment not to run presents the opposition coalition with a dilemma about what to do next.
At the moment, the commitments of the political elite and the military are completely unclear, and they will certainly matter. While the military stands back, Mubarak supporters and opponents have been fighting in the streets, threatening to undermine any hope of a peaceful transition. The mobilization of Mubarak supporters will make it harder and harder for Army officers to postpone their decisions about which side to tip.
Meantime, authorities and dissidents throughout the Arab world are watching and planning their own efforts. Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of Yemen, has promised that he will leave office in 2013, and that his son will not try to succeed him. Such reforms are intended to take the wind out of at least some of the sails that are tacking against the regime, making it possible to govern–and to repress some critics.
Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are surely trying to figure out how to avoid the unfolding (but unwanted) fates of Mubarak and Saleh. Reforms as concessions are one strategy; another is repression. These are not mutually exclusive.