Mubarak's 9 biggest mistakes

As hundreds of thousands of angry protesters mobbed downtown Cairo to denounce his 30-year rule, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak delivered an utterly unapologetic speech Tuesday evening, vowing to safeguard his country's stability and security while announcing that he would not seek a 6th term.

Defending his record and saying he would "die on Egyptian soil," Mubarak indicated that he he had no intention of following the example of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and fleeing ignominiously into exile.

Almost immediately, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square renewed their calls for his ouster, rejecting his bid to remain in office for another few months. It seems that Mubarak has made yet another mistake, one that may ultimately lead him to share Ben Ali's fate. So what were his biggest blunders?

1. Failing to spread the wealth. Egypt's economy as a whole has grown by a respectable amount, but most Egyptians don't feel they've gotten their fair share. Instead, they see wealthy businessman with ties to the ruling National Democratic Party stealing the country's riches.

2. Allowing corruption to pervade Egyptian life. If there's  one thing Egyptians complain about, it's the grand and petty corruption that makes it nearly impossible for anyone in the country to make an honest living. Getting anything done requires a bribe (the infamous baksheesh) and/or connections (wasta), and high-level embezzlement is rampant.

3. The vision thing. Say what you want about Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, but Mubarak's two predecessors knew where they wanted to take the country and had a plan for getting there. Nasser wanted to create a pan-Arab union under the banner of socialism and non-alignment, while Sadat sought to regain Egypt's martial pride before making peace with Israel and joining the West. As for Mubarak, what does he offer Egyptians? Crumbling infrastructure, decaying socio-economic conditions, and utter fealty to the United States.

4. Half-hearted reforms. Egyptians have grown rightly cynical at their-government's on-again off-again reform efforts, characterized by unpersuasive propaganda or Orwellian doublespeak. When they hear the word "reform," Egyptians look for the catch, such as the constitutional amendment that more or less bars independent candidates from contesting the presidency.

5. Grooming Gamal. If there's one thing nearly all Egyptians agree on, it's that they don't want to be ruled by Mubarak's British-educated son. Over the last decade, Gamal played an increasingly visible role in setting domestic policy, tying his fortunes to unpopular liberal economic reforms and wealthy businessmen who are seen as corrupt and out of touch with ordinary Egyptians. Some of the most popular chants at demonstrations in recent years were variants of "No to inheritence!"

6. Underestimating the activists. Clearly, the Interior Ministry and the police were not prepared for the surge of protesters that first hit the streets on January 25. Accustomed to small demonstrations organized by Egypt's utterly inept, fractious opposition parties, the security forces clearly expected more of the same. But the organizers behind the current uprising are networked, tech-savvy young people who obviously know how to connect with their audience and get the word out. They're not from the political parties. The police were clearly rocked back on their heels, exhausted, and outmaneuvered last Friday -- and that's when the army had to step in.

7. Cheating too much. In most of the parliamentary contests during his 30 year reign, Mubarak has allowed a token number of seats to go to opposition parties. But in the 2010 elections, the NDP's rigging got out of control, leaving only a handful of seats for the coopted Wafd Party. The Muslim Brotherhood was shut out, leaving it with no stake in the government and the patronage opportunities that go along with representation in parliament.

8. Sending in the thugs. After the police forces mysteriously dissolved Friday, reports came streaming in of looters attacking people in the streets, breaking into shops and homes, and otherwise intimidating ordinary Egyptians. Many of these thugs were found to be carrying police or state security IDs. If Mubarak's hope was to drive the middle class back into the loving arms of the state, it seems he badly miscalculated -- the protests have only gotten bigger since then.

9. Bringing in his cronies. Despite his Friday speech vowing to enact various unspecified political and constitutional reforms, Mubarak named his spy chief Omar Suleiman his vice president, dumped his cabinet, and named a retired Air Force general as his prime minister. Opposition leaders and analysts rightly interpreted this as a sign of business as usual. 

This is hardly an exhaustive list, and I imagine Mubarak will make a few more major mistakes in the days ahead. What do you all think he got wrong? Please weigh in below.


So you want to cover a revolution?

Sitting at my desk in Washington, scanning the latest photos from Tahrir Square streaming in and reading live blogs that pull together the latest disparate strands of information, I can't help but wonder whether I know more about the protests happening in Cairo than the reporters who are actually there. That's how I sometimes felt, at least, when I was in Tehran in 2009 covering the Iranian presidential elections and their alternately inspiring and bloody aftermath. Observing an incipient revolution on the ground wasn't always clarifying so much as it was harrowing and confusing and exhausting.

I wonder how much work reporters in Egypt have had to devote to mitigating the dangers and intimidation suddenly associated with their jobs. The Iranian government rescinded all press passes the day after the 2009 election and were eager to arrest journalists thereafter on charges of espionage: it seems that in the early days of the Egyptian protests, security services were similarly targeting journalists, though that may no longer be an issue. I'd guess that only a fraction of the correspondents in Cairo right now are credentialed, but the Egyptian government seems to have deteriorated to such a point that there's probably little danger involved in filing stories.

But that begs the question of how to file at all after the government's shut down all Internet and mobile phone communications. It's easy to feel adrift when the modern correspondent's toolkit of laptop, cell phone and digital camera is suddenly and completely rendered useless. Any reporter worth his or her salt is going to find a way to get the story out, but it may involve risks that aren't calculated in advance. When the adrenaline subsides, paranoia can begin to cloud one's thoughts. Am I being monitored? Which of these protesters I'm interviewing are actually plainclothes police? The technological isolation also produces a certain practical myopia: it's hard to know if you're ever reporting at the right place at the right time.

But there are advantages to myopia as well. On the ground, reporters can observe the motley collection of personal motivations being expressed in these public events. The political upshot of the Green Revolution was to challenge the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy. But the individual protesters I encountered were most often motivated by a longing for dignity, a concept that is not strictly political: many told me about their economic frustrations, others about grievances against the regime that they had harbored for years or decades, still others told me they were seeking to test their manhood. No one mentioned geopolitics, or the support or lack thereof of President Obama. (Who would choose to risk their lives for the sake of the president of another country?) Outside observers inevitably see too much of themselves and their own ideas in these stories.

It's clear that the Egyptians have done something politically momentous, but that doesn't mean they calculated its political import. Before we interpret what the Egyptians have done, we should try to listen to what they have to say, even -- especially -- if it's not yet what we want to hear.