Last week, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the beneficiary of January's people's coup, herself almost fell victim to the fickle mob. For days, crowds jammed EDSA, swelling to 400,000, many of them angry, poor people enraged at Arroyo's brass-knuckled arrest the previous week of Estrada, their former champion. At dawn on Tuesday, a 40,000-strong mob laid siege to Arroyo's rambling presidential palace, forcing her to scurry from room to room for safety, sometimes donning a bulletproof vest. Was she frightened? "Maybe for a split second," she said.
She should have been. Government and diplomatic sources in Manila tell TIME that several key generals in the Philippine navy and air force were contacted by Arroyo's adversaries in the early stages of the Manila disturbances and offered large sums of money to switch sides. Fortunately for the President, the generals balked. They probably did so less out of loyalty than pragmatism: the coup sounded too hastily planned to succeed.
The anti-Arroyo demonstrations at EDSA early last week grew with such velocity that even the coup plotters—allegedly several senators and former police officers—were scrambling to catch up with events. "There was no time for them to organize support in the armed forces," said one ex-military intelligence chief. The nature of the crowd was different, too. Instead of the earnest-but-cheerful street warriors of the first two People Power demonstrations, these were Manila's poor, who had charged out of the slums as much to rage against their own misery as to reinstall Estrada. They quickly became uncontrollable.
Nor could the golpistas agree on who should take power if Arroyo was ousted. According to diplomats and military sources, one faction wanted Estrada restored to the presidency. (He is now under arrest at a military base 50 km outside Manila on charges of plundering the state coffers.) Another group wanted to forget Estrada and install its own military-civilian junta. If the plot succeeded, says Justice Secretary Hernani Perez, the rebels probably would have killed Estrada and Arroyo. Another mistake the plotters made was using the tried-and-true methods of bribing top men in uniform. Says one Western diplomat: "If the instigators had appealed to the mid-ranking officers, the idealists who are angry at how the rich control everything in the Philippines, the coup might've worked."
The coup plotters also underestimated the pig iron beneath the petite 54-year-old President's bulletproof vest. "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger," Arroyo told TIME last week. As the protesters occupied EDSA, Arroyo set up her own war room in the MalacaNang Palace. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and several thousand Elite marines and riot police were brought in to guard the riverside lanes around MalacaNang. They unspooled kilometers of razor wire around the palace; under the venerable trees of its garden marines dug in with .50-caliber machine guns. "Let them come. I'll crush them!" taunted Arroyo.
Come they did. Before dawn on Tuesday, thousands of pro-Estrada supporters swarmed to the palace, bearing stones and clubs. Inside her war room, Arroyo could hear the ominous battle din: the bursts of warning gunfire, a tempest of stones thwacking police riot shields, the mob's murderous roar. Arroyo says she has an intimate knowledge of MalacaNang, having lived there as the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal. Therefore, she knew all the palace's secret passages and escape routes. Outside, police battled rioters for more than 12 hours. More than 100 people were injured, and at least four protesters were killed along with one policeman, who tripped and began firing wildly into the crowd with his revolver. When he emptied his cartridge, say eyewitnesses, the mob descended and beat him to death.
When the battle wound down, Arroyo declared that Manila was under a "state of rebellion," a vague term of dubious constitutionality that allows the President to arrest whomever she likes for a period of three days. She ordered the rounding up of her most bitter political foes, including Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, an Estrada loyalist and one of the heroes who toppled the Marcos regime, and former Washington ambassador Ernesto Maceda. Senator Gregorio Honasan, an Enrile ally and former army colonel involved in seven botched coup attempts in the late 1980s, refused to surrender along with nine others.
So far, the government has failed to produce any hard evidence that Enrile, Honasan or the others were indeed plotting to topple Arroyo. But presidential aides insist that proof does exist, and it will soon be released. Honasan, for one, denies that he was mounting a coup. In a telephone call from "somewhere close to Manila," he explained to TIME: "I've come from the dark arena of armed struggle. The only way for meaningful change to occur is peacefully." So why was he fleeing? "What Gloria is doing is unconstitutional," he explained. "There are no charges, no warrants against us. I don't want to be locked up in a room. Who knows what might happen to me?"
Arroyo seems pleased by her show of toughness. "I hope they now realize that this 'wisp of a lady' has an iron fist and an iron will," she crows. Others think she overreacted, considering the demographic profile of the poor, angry protesters and their fury over her treatment of Estrada. (To arrest the former President, she deployed over 5,000 security forces, backed by helicopters and rooftop snipers after Estrada had volunteered to turn himself in.) Says Uderic Auduan, a print shop owner who supported Estrada on the streets: "Estrada was someone who can help us—and they treated him worse than a murderer."
Arroyo tried making amends by visiting Estrada last Thursday in his new, two-room jail cell. She beamed when Estrada shook her hand for the cameras and, ever the gallant actor, called her "our President." She still faces a more difficult p.r. job: to persuade poor Filipinos that despite her haughtiness and her ties to the oligarchy, she genuinely wants to help them with jobs, schools and public medical care, none of which she has done in her first 100 days. Judgment may come during May 14th senatorial elections, when her handling of Estrada and the arrests of her foes is expected to cause a backlash against her 13 candidates.
Arroyo still has enemies at large. At dinner last Wednesday, a text message flashed on the President's cell phone warning that an air force general had sold out for $600,000 and joined the coup plotters. The report was wrong; the general was sitting across the table from Arroyo, and they both laughed. But unless the President starts mending ties with the military and her political opposition, the next warning to flash on her cell phone could be real.