Egyptian Military Proving to Be Rival Power Center to Mubarak

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

An Egyptian army captain holds the national flag and salutes protesters in Cairo on Jan. 31, 2011

For 30 years, there was only one center of power in Egypt: President Hosni Mubarak. But as night fell on Cairo on Monday, and the country began its "march of millions" and a general strike on Tuesday, Mubarak appeared to be losing that monopoly. He's still the President, of course, and supreme commander of the military, but amid the haze of uncertainty hanging over the stalemate on the streets, Mubarak's writ may be diminishing: Monday's announcement by the Egyptian army that it recognized the "legitimacy" of the demonstrators' demands and refused to use force to disperse them (despite their protest being illegal under existing laws) could mark a turning point in the popular rebellion aimed at bringing down the strongman. The government's announcement that it was seeking dialogue with its opponents was another sign of a shifting balance.

If the military declines to use force to disperse the protesters and upholds their right to peaceful protest (which was the case as of Tuesday morning), that could create a duality of power. The democratic rebellion may not be strong enough to send Mubarak packing, but it could be too strong to be destroyed if he no longer has the option of shooting his way out of the crisis. And if Mubarak is unable to quash the democracy movement, it will likely continue to gather strength while his power ebbs.

"The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people," an army statement, released on Monday, stated. "Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirm that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody." Tuesday's protests saw more than 100,000 people gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo by midday, with organizers hoping that 1 million would attend what is expected to be the biggest show yet. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with protesters singing and chanting as they posted placards and held banners with anti-Mubarak slogans. And while military helicopters buzzed overhead, soldiers at checkpoints set up at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering. Egypt's second biggest city, Alexandria, saw thousands of people near the railway station hoping to travel to join the main rally in Cairo (protests were taking place in at least five other cities across Egypt). But security officials were reported as saying all roads and public transportation to Cairo had been shut down. Meanwhile, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called on Mubarak to step down by Feb. 4, according to al-Arabiya TV.

The military was originally Mubarak's power base, just as it had been for his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Having emerged from within its ranks to become Sadat's Vice President, and then inheriting the presidency when his boss was murdered in 1981 by an extremist cell within the military, Mubarak has ruled over the officer corps with an iron fist. General Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief Mubarak last week appointed as Vice President, has long kept a close eye on the brass for any signs of dissent. Both men know that the key question posed by the street rebellion has been which way the army will go. If it backs Mubarak and moves against the protesters, the uprising could be snuffed out, at least temporarily. But if it distances itself from the regime, as the Tunisian army did with President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali just weeks earlier, all bets are off for Mubarak.

If Monday's statement does, indeed, reflect a willingness to defy any order to fire on demonstrators, it represents a devastating blow to Mubarak's prospects of political survival, as force may be his only option for clearing the streets if he intends to ignore the demand that he step down. The Obama Administration has been in constant contact with the Egyptian armed forces — recipients of an annual $1.5 billion of U.S. military aid — urging them to refrain from using violence against the demonstrators. If there's to be a peaceful outcome to the standoff, it's unlikely to see Mubarak emerge on top, an outcome with which the Obama Administration appears increasingly comfortable.

Mubarak may have set the stage for a possible exit late last week by appointing Suleiman as his first Vice President since he took power in 1981. And on Monday, Suleiman announced he would begin negotiating with the opposition. "The President has asked me today to immediately hold contacts with the political forces to start a dialogue about all raised issues that also involve constitutional and legislative reforms," he said in a televised address. While that's hardly the language of surrender, it nonetheless represents a potential step along the road to a negotiated solution under which Mubarak gives up the presidency.

Suleiman, who is believed to have the support of the military, is one of the regime's hard men, having overseen a merciless campaign to take down extremist terrorist groups in Egypt during the 1990s. During Suleiman's tenure as chief, Egypt's intelligence agency was also one of those to which the interrogation of terrorism suspects was outsourced by the U.S. He's also an old hand at managing tricky negotiations, having handled talks with both Israel and Hamas for Mubarak in the past.

Finding himself at the fulcrum of a fast-changing power equation could put the intelligence chief turned Vice President in a strong position to script the denouement of the rebellion. Suleiman could be simply taking the temperature of opposition leaders to assess what they'll accept, or he could find himself brokering a deal that results in Mubarak's departure from the political scene. That, at least, is what the opposition will be holding out for. The regime's preference may be for the President to hand over the reins to Suleiman at some future date, on the basis of an agreement with the opposition on the terms for new elections. But it's far from clear whether Mubarak — or Suleiman — see a regime change as inevitable. The opposition will press its argument in Tuesday's march and strike action. But those who would keep Mubarak in power may not yet have had their last word.