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Timing of Mubarak speech was no accident, says expert

By Tom Watkins, CNN
Anti-government protesters react after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a statement February 10, 2011.
Anti-government protesters react after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a statement February 10, 2011.
  • "He was trying to preempt a call for a general strike" on Friday, says Saad Eddin Ibrahim
  • An Egyptian journalist calls the speech "one last, desperate attempt" to win over protesters
  • A professor sees timing as an attempt to thwart recent gains made by the protesters
  • Says another professor: "He had to do something"
  • Egypt
  • Hosni Mubarak

(CNN) -- The timing of Hosni Mubarak's speech Thursday night to the nation was no accident, said Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and visiting scholar at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, who was imprisoned three times by Mubarak.

"He's trying to preempt a call for a general strike tomorrow," Ibrahim told CNN Thursday in a telephone interview, noting that workers began joining the demonstrations early this week and were calling for demonstrations throughout Egypt on Friday. "Usually, after the Friday prayer, people congregate, so he was trying to preempt that."

But Ibrahim -- who said he taught Mubarak's wife and children -- predicted that the Egyptian president will not succeed. "Partly, because he is no longer trusted -- especially by the young people. Maybe the middle-aged or older people, who are not in the street in the first place, would give him the benefit of the doubt."

The 72-year-old professor said he was departing New Jersey on Friday for Egypt to join the protesters.

Though he said the prospect that the demonstrators might resort to violence was a real one, he held out the hope that it would not come to that. "So far, the only people who used violence are the pro-government people," he said. "I salute these young protesters for being self-disciplined, for being peaceful, restraining themselves."

In Cairo, Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin said she saw Mubarak's speech "as one last, desperate attempt" to win over the protesters.

"He really thinks that there are some people still on his side, that those in Tahrir (Square) do not represent the majority of Egyptians," she said. "He is still hopeful that he can step down in dignity after meeting some of the demands of the protesters. He thinks that if he holds on to power and there are tangible changes on the ground, then at least people will remember him for those changes and he would not have left office in disgrace. Don't forget that he is a military man and very proud. That's my guess."

But Joshua Stacher, assistant professor of political science at Kent State University in Ohio, hypothesized that Mubarak was simply trying to thwart recent gains made by the demonstrators in the wake of the government's release Monday of the charismatic 30-year-old activist Wael Ghonim, who helped organize the demonstrations and who is on leave from an executive position with Google.

"They felt the protesters were gaining a bit of momentum ever since Wael Ghonim came out," Stacher said. "I think it was intended to disrupt the momentum of the protesters."

James Gelvin, a professor of history at UCLA, said Mubarak had little choice but to act on Thursday. "He had to do something," Gelvin said in a telephone interview. "Today followed on the biggest demonstrations in Egypt's recent history. It's not just in Tahrir Square, it's up and down the country, and it's labor unrest as well. You've got a perfect storm of economic grievances and political grievances at the same time."

The timing of the next move is up to the military, which both supports the protesters and wants order, he said. "They can't have it both ways."

He predicted the military, which is estimated to control 5% to 40% of the economy, would wind up protecting its own interests.

"If I had to predict, against my wishes, what I'd say is that this thing will continue tomorrow and the army is going to intervene," he said.

But, he noted, "it can go either way. If one private is trigger-happy and fires into a crowd or one Molotov cocktail goes a certain direction, then all bets are off."