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Mubarak shows no hint of caving to protests

A protestor holds up an Egyptian flag in Cairo, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011. The Arab world's most populous nation appeared to be swiftly moving closer to a point at which it either dissolves into widespread chaos or the military expands its presence and control of the streets

Ahmed Ali/Ahmed Ali/The Associated Press

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is attempting to shore up his shaky grip on power, showing no signs of giving in to the protests that continue to engulf the country.

In a show of strength, police have been ordered back into the streets after a weekend marred by violence and looting left many Egyptians fearful for the safety of their families and property. Fighter jets buzzed crowds of protesters in Cairo's downtown, signalling the government's resolve to contain the protests that threaten the strongman's 30-year-rule.

And early Monday, Mr. Mubarak called on his newly appointed Prime Minister to take urgent steps toward reform "through dialogue with all parties," a vague pledge unlikely to blunt the edge of the protests, now entering their seventh day.

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While the embattled President showed signs of pushing back, the opposition - made up of disparate groups that range from itinerant bloggers to the liberal establishment, and from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to the unaffiliated unemployed - is trying to consolidate its own hold on the tens of thousands of protesters who are its greatest weapon in the battle to unseat Mr. Mubarak.

Opposition enthusiasm peaked Saturday afternoon, when tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Tahrir Square, celebrating their victory Friday in driving the riot police off the streets. On Sunday, in the same square, a group of about the same size faced the reality of trying to become a political force capable of dealing with the establishment order.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, tried to take centre stage when he offered himself as the opposition's negotiator. Reportedly backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. ElBaradei addressed the gathered protesters after dark Sunday, but was barely audible to those people still in the square.

"You have taken back your rights," Mr. ElBaradei said. "There is no way back."

Since the opposition lacks a single coherent leadership, it would be difficult to know if and when Mr. ElBaradei's offer is accepted.

The tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square on Sunday did put on an impressive show, staring down the Egyptian fighter jets that loudly buzzed the square at low altitude, clearly attempting to intimidate the people. Each time the jets roared past, the crowd greeted them with whistles and cheers and a strong rendition of the Allahu akbar (Allah is great) chant.

While toppled Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali surprised many people by how quickly he conceded power, Mr. Mubarak is showing he's a harder nut to crack.

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"The big question isn't Mubarak, it's how long the opposition can keep up these rallies," said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt. "Can they outlast the President?"

"I don't think so," he said.

"He's played a clever hand," said Mr. Bell who also served as ambassador to Jordon and to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. "He played the security card deftly, counting on the people's fears to bring them back to his promise of law and order."

Mr. Mubarak also sowed confusion in opposition ranks by shutting down the Internet from midnight Thursday, and he frustrated opposition supporters by shutting down the Egypt operation of the Arab television network Al Jazeera on Sunday. The network had provided non-stop coverage of the protests.

But all that doesn't mean that Mr. Mubarak will, necessarily, stay in office much longer. On Saturday, he appointed intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his first-ever Vice-President and former air force commander and civil aviation minister Ahmed Shafik as his new Prime Minister.

"The President hedged his bets with the appointment of Omar Suleiman," Mr. Bell said. "So that even if he does step down, Mr. Suleiman will carry on in his tradition."

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"The minute he appointed Suleiman, we knew it was over for Mubarak," said another Western diplomat currently serving in Cairo. "It's only a question of timing, of finding the right formula for him to retire with the thanks of the nation for his hard work.

"Suleiman is the one person who can protect the Mubarak family's interest during a transition," he said.

But don't expect Mr. Suleiman to stay in power for long, this diplomat added. "Keep your eye on Ahmed Shafik," he said, referring to the newly appointed Prime Minister.

"We've been watching him for some time," the diplomat said. "He's smart, technically savvy, a good manager and a military man through and through - all the makings of the [political-military]establishment's next candidate for president.

"And, as Prime Minister, he's going to get all the credit for the flood of reforms the government is about to bring in."

Others foresee Mr. Suleiman leading the establishment ticket for president in September.

"The military has no intention of letting anyone undo the formula for stability that became synonymous with Mubarak," said Hisham Kassem, the founding editor of Egypt's only independent daily newspaper Almasry Alyoum. "They will want Mr. Suleiman to see to that," he said. "There's no one better qualified."

"Forget Tahrir Square," Mr. Kassem explained. "The real pressure on Mubarak and the military leadership is coming from the stock market and the banks.

"For every protester in Tahrir Square there's a wealthy man making his case to the leadership," he said. "The risk of his capital's flight carries a lot of weight."

The establishment is counting on a continuation of order, albeit with sufficient reforms to satisfy the people in those countries such as the United States and Canada who are demanding such things.

As far as the establishment is concerned, it should be a case of "Mubarak is dead, long live Mubarak-ism."

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