WASHINGTON — He walks several yards to his office from his living quarters at the presidential palace every day, dressed in his trademark black business suit and tie. On Saturday, he conducted a meeting of his new government’s economic team. And on Sunday, he received an envoy from Oman, who delivered a letter from the sultan.Egyptian, Arab and Western officials who have dealt with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt say that for the past week, he has veered between anger, a sense of betrayal and stoicism. Known for a fierce conservatism that prizes stability above all else, Mr. Mubarak has reacted to the calls for his resignation — some from Western officials who he thought were, if not friends, at least allies — with his usual change-resistant manner. One Arab official called it “his reflex adherence to the status quo.”
That deep-seated aversion to change, along with Mr. Mubarak’s fierce pride and absolute certainty that he is the only person who can provide his country with the stability he so prizes, now occupies center stage in the Egyptian crisis, a psychological drama to rival the clash on the streets.
At his news conference on Friday, President Obama said he thought Mr. Mubarak had made a “psychological break” from his hold on office by announcing that he would not run again.
The question of whether Mr. Mubarak will yield power willingly — and how and under what timetable he might do so — are driving the Obama administration’s national security team to assess and reassess their strategy in dealing with him. It is being watched intently by the antigovernment protesters in Cairo, much of the Arab world and even by members of his own government.
The protesters, along with American and Western officials, are unsure to what degree Mr. Mubarak still calls the shots. There is speculation here and in Cairo that Omar Suleiman, whom Mr. Mubarak named as vice president eight days ago, is in charge now. Since a tense 30-minute phone call between Mr. Obama and Mr. Mubarak last Tuesday night ended with Mr. Mubarak balking at American suggestions that he leave power, most of the Obama administration’s negotiations have been with Mr. Suleiman, according to American officials.
Still, Mr. Suleiman and other Egyptian officials have taken pains to show that their actions are at their boss’s behest, even if he does not appear to be publicly managing the country’s crisis.
American and Egyptian officials say that such considerations are all part of a carefully calibrated process aimed at avoiding a direct challenge to Mr. Mubarak’s unwavering belief that if you make concessions — like tendering a resignation — in the face of pressure, you invite more demands. Concessions must be made on the Mubarak stopwatch, say those who have worked with him. They describe a man who often refuses to accept an idea when it is first presented, but weeks later, embraces it as his own.
Mr. Mubarak, 82, has survived three wars, an Islamic uprising and multiple assassination attempts. Two years ago, an aneurism caused the sudden death of his 12-year-old grandson, Muhammad, a deep personal blow. Through all of that, Egyptian and American officials said, he continues to believe that his country can succeed only if he is at the helm to protect it from being taken over by Islamists (He deplores the Muslim Brotherhood, who he has long believed had a hand in the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat).
“He kept the peace for 30 years, and it is tragic that his tenure in office ends this way,” said an Egyptian official who worked closely with Mr. Mubarak. But, the official added, “There came a point beyond which President Mubarak became out of touch with a significant portion of the Egyptian people.”
The traits that define Mr. Mubarak today have been on display for decades. In 1981, Bruce O. Riedel, then a young Egypt analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote a briefing paper that, he said, concluded that Mr. Mubarak’s rise to power would be beneficial to Washington because he was “cautious, conservative, predictable and pro-American.”
Witnessing Mr. Sadat being gunned down in a hail of gunfire was a searing experience for him, and he lives a cloistered life in the secure confines of the palace in Cairo or his residence in the seaside community of Sharm el Sheik.
But Mr. Mubarak also turned his risk-aversion into a virtue, portraying himself as heroic for being canny enough not to be lured into rash decisions. In 1970, as chief of the Egyptian Air Force, Mr. Mubarak famously resisted intense pressure from the Soviet Union to test Israel’s air defenses by flying combat missions over the Sinai Peninsula. The Soviets carried out the missions themselves, and in July of that year the Israeli military shot down five Soviet MiG-21s.
“This is indicative of a guy who takes his victories not from doing things, but from avoiding doing things,” Mr. Riedel said .