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Hosni Mubarak gets backing of Egypt's military: Who's really in charge?

Hosni Mubarak's refusal to step down after a day of signals that he was leaving power is pushing Egypt's uprising toward a dangerous confrontation. Egypt's military appears to be firmly backing the regime.

By Staff writer / February 11, 2011

Opposition supporters attend Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 11. Egypt's powerful army pledged on Friday to guarantee President Hosni Mubarak's reforms in a move to defuse a popular uprising, but many angry protesters said this failed to meet their key demand that he resign immediately.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

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Cairo

The see-saw events of yesterday – with strong hints from parts of the political establishment and Egypt's military that Hosni Mubarak was planning to step down, followed by a politically tone-deaf presidential address that enraged the legions of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square – have set the table for a tense Friday in Egypt.

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The events of the past few days have put the Egyptian regime in a strange twilight. Mubarak remains formal president, defying the protesters, but Omar Suleiman, who for years was presumed to be the military's preferred choice of successor, is increasingly powerful.

The military is showing flickers of overt political independence – its statement on Thursday said the Supreme Council would remain in "continuous" session until the crisis passed – but appears well short of making a break from the regime.

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University, says the powers Mubarak has formally retained are also crucial. "Omar Suleiman can't change the government, can't reshuffle the cabinet, can't dissolve the two houses of parliament, and can't amend the Constitution by himself," he says at a protest of Cairo University professors planning to march to Tahrir Square.

He points out that the powers Suleiman doesn't have relate precisely to the main demands of the democracy demonstrators. "So I think this is a temporary retreat from Hosni Mubarak. He's given something up that he can take back at any time."

Obama says Mubarak's speech not enough

Confusion seemed to reign overnight in Washington as well. CIA boss Leon Panetta said during the day yesterday he expected Mubarak to step down. After Mubarak's speech, which he condescendingly described as a "father's dialogue with his sons and daughters," President Barack Obama put out one of his most strongly worded statements on the situation in Egypt that amply reflected the lack of clarity in Mubarak's words.

"The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful, or sufficient," Obama's statement reads. "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity."

On Thursday the military convened its Supreme Council for only the third time in Egypt's history and without Mubarak, who would ordinarily chair such meetings, present.

Following the meeting, the military released an ambiguous statement that Egypt's democracy protesters took to mean that the Army was willing to step in to remove Mubarak from power for the good of the nation and would then seek to guide the nation towards democracy and fair elections.

But late this morning in Cairo, the military released a statement – read this time by a civilian, not a man in uniform as yesterday's – that appeared to throw their clear support back to Mubarak. They said they would ensure that the promises of the president would be carried out and endorsed his formal handover of many of the powers of the presidency to Vice President Suleiman.

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