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.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

'They're protecting the system'

Mr. Suleiman, a former spy chief and general whom many protesters view as responsible for state torture and as fiercely loyal to Mubarak, has already been governing Egypt in all but name since he was appointed vice president by Mubarak two weeks ago.

If Mubarak was hoping his formal endorsement of this de facto arrangement would satisfy demonstrators, who are demanding that he immediately step down, he was proven wrong.

"Yesterday we thought the military was pointing out that Mubarak's power was destabilizing Egypt, and that to step forward to remove him would be done for the sake of the nation," says Salman, a young protester manning one of the barricades in Tahrir Square near the Egyptian museum. "Now it seems it was all a bluff and they're protecting the system."

State of emergency still in place

Last night, Mubarak's speech provoked howls of rage in Tahrir.

Some of the demonstrators related to the more than 300 protesters that died at the hands of the Egyptian police and regime-paid thugs in late January, had to be physically restrained by their comrades as they thrashed about and urged protesters to immediately march on Mubarak's palace in Heliopolis and provoke a confrontation.

The clearest demand of the protesters – that Mubarak end his 30-year rule of Egypt – was denied. His promised amendments to the constitution to allow political freedom, set presidential term limits, and guarantee fair elections, have not yet been delivered on and have been a part of state rhetoric for a decade at least.

More ominous for the protesters still was the military's statement today that the emergency law, which has allowed Mubarak to circumvent the limited protections of the Egyptian Constitution whenever he sees fit, would be struck when "conditions permit." That's been the government's position on the emergency law since Mubarak took power in the wake of Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981.

Braced for confrontation

Now as tens of thousands in Tahrir Square pause for the Muslim Friday prayer, Egypt is braced for confrontation. A greater number of shops than usual were closed in central Cairo this morning (part of the Egyptian weekend) as average Egyptians wondered if an outpouring of rage could follow the prayers.

Small groups of protesters were in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb that's home to the presidential palace, but a massive military and riot police presence made it seem unlikely that a march on the palace would be successful.

Why so many conflicting signals on Thursday? Some analysts in Cairo said it appeared that Mubarak believed by sowing some confusion, followed by new half-measure concessions, he could reduce support for the protest movement. The president is also known to be a very stubborn and proud man, and presented himself as one of Egypt's aggrieved parties in his speech last night.

"I never sought power or fake popularity. I trust that the overwhelming majority of the people know who Hosni Mubarak is," he said. "It pains me to see how some of my countrymen are treating me today."

On Tahrir Square many protesters believe the president is in fact seeking to spark an outpouring of violence that can be used to discredit the movement and crackdown protesters.

"All I can think of now is that Mubarak is provoking us," says Salman, who'd never participated in politics until he rushed to help protesters for the battle for Tahrir on Jan. 28 and has been there volunteering for most of the time since.

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