CAIRO — The chants of "down with the regime" started up again about 30 seconds after President Hosni Mubarak had wrapped up his speech on Tuesday night, where he announced that he would leave the world stage and forgo running for a sixth term this fall. For the thousands of protesters spending the night in Tahrir Square -- who watched the speech live projected on a huge makeshift screen -- the message couldn't have been clearer. Mubarak's latest fallback concession would not be acceptable.
"It's a political game; he's buying time," said Khaled Maghrabi, 46, an executive at a drug company who had taken to the streets on Friday. All through the square on a chilly night, protesters showed no signs of abandoning their historic protest campaign or turning down the pressure on the 82-year-old president. In the past week, Mubarak has dissolved the cabinet, appointed his first-ever vice president, and reached out urgently for dialogue with the opposition. But each new half-concession has only served to motivate and enrage the protesters further.
Mubarak's speech, his second address to the nation since the waves of civil unrest started last week, was a performance worth of extended study. He remained defiant, but came off as a little wounded, and basically admitted that he had lost the country. He presented it as a decision to "finish my work in the service of the nation" and head into well-earned retirement. He dwelled at length on the "chaos" and "looting" that took place after police forces melted away on Friday and promised prosecution for those involved. At one point, he spoke of himself in the third person: "Hosni Mubarak … is proud of all the long years he spent in the service of the nation."
But despite the defiance on display in Tahrir, Mubarak's latest proposal might just gain some traction with a certain segment of the population. Many apolitical Egyptians are showing signs of fatigue at the massive disruption of daily life. The Internet is still blocked, banks and the stock market are closed, the trains to Cairo aren't running, most work has been suspended, and stores in some areas are running low on supplies.
Mubarak seems to be playing a long game -- entrenching and stretching out the standoff, keeping the country disrupted while blaming the protesters for the disruption. In the coming days, he can count on his still formidable media machine to paint him as a beloved father figure whose efforts are unappreciated and who deserves, at least, to leave the stage with dignity.
A longer standoff will also give him time to rally support from other Arab governments. That support would likely be robust and sincere since nearly every Arab government -- except maybe those in Lebanon and Iraq -- should be very worried about what happened here this week. It took a solid month to place Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in jeopardy. Mubarak, even if he survives this, has been placed into open crisis in less than a week. Jordan's King Abdullah has already dissolved his government in a panicky attempt to assuage protesters angry about its economic policies and ordered immediate reform as a proactive step.
But there's a deeply personal element to Mubarak's latest appeal to his people, one that could very well resonate with ordinary Egyptians and rob the protesters of at least some of their popular support. A genuine war hero, Mubarak actually is viewed as a father figure by many Egyptians, who often forgive his faults and blame his underlings for endemic problems like corruption and police brutality. Even those who are happy to see him go might not see the need to have him humiliated.
It remains to be seen just how many Egyptians will accept Mubarak's latest terms. Either way, the protesters remaining in Tahrir, who are calling for another massive turnout on Friday, have no intention of granting Mubarak an extended farewell tour.
"After the death of 300 martyrs this week, I can't accept having him for one minute more," Maghrabi said, as he prepared to spend yet another night among the masses in Tahrir.