Military Will Determine Fate of Mubarak's Exit Plan

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Ben Curtis / AP

Mubarak supporters, below, and anti-government demonstrators clash in Tahrir Square, the center of the protests, in Cairo on Feb. 2, 2011

Cornered by a massive street rebellion, an initial refusal of his armed forces to suppress it and the cold shoulder of the Obama Administration, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak called time on his 30-year reign late Tuesday. But he's not planning to bow out just yet or to flee in ignominy. Instead, in a recorded television statement that still came off as more defiant than humbled, Mubarak promised that he would not seek re-election in the presidential vote scheduled for September this year. Instead, he vowed to remain in control until then to ensure a peaceful handover of power in "conditions of safety and security."

Not surprisingly, Mubarak's gradual exit plan didn't seem to defuse the crisis. Having Mubarak in charge during a transition has been roundly rejected by opposition leaders involved in the street protests, who have demanded that the strongman quit by Friday. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei reiterated Tuesday that a peaceful transition is "going to require as a first step the departure of President Mubarak." And Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam el-Erian said his group, the most powerful opposition party, had rejected government overtures for talks, warning that, "As long as Mubarak delays his departure, these protests will remain and they will only get bigger."

But for all the words uttered Tuesday, the terms and duration of the political transition will not be decided by either Mubarak or the opposition, because neither is strong enough to impose terms on the other. The outcome of their battle of wills may be decided by other actors, first and foremost the country's armed forces.

The giddy euphoria of Tuesday's protest was understandable: the presence on Egypt's streets of a million people in full-throated denunciation of Mubarak's police state was quite unthinkable just weeks earlier. There was a carnival atmosphere as crowds celebrated their own power that had forced Mubarak's glum announcement. But by Wednesday, there were growing signs that pro-Mubarak thugs were moving in to fight the protestors on the streets and generate chaos in order to justify a crackdown. And the military's statement that it was time for the protestors to go home was an ominous sign that the wind that had been at the backs of the democratic movement over the past week could be starting to turn.

A full-scale celebration may be premature at this point, as was made clear by the many Egyptians who appeared angrier after Mubarak's statement. While the rebellion has killed off Mubarak's prospects of remaining in power, it has not actually overthrown the state. This isn't yet a Berlin Wall moment, nor it is necessarily destined to become one: the armed forces are very much in control of the country (even if the police appear to be in some disarray) and their monopoly of force remains unchallenged.

Indeed, the military called Wednesday for an end to the demonstrations, which could be seen as a clear shift from the tacit endorsement it gave to the movement on Monday by declaring it wouldn't use force against the protesters, and that they had legitimate demands. "Your message has arrived, your demands became known ... you are capable of bringing normal life to Egypt," said a spokesman in a message broadcast on state television. After the statement, state television ran a scrolling message reading, "The armed forces call on the protesters to go home for the sake of bringing back stability."

The unprecedented display of people power since Friday had been enabled by the military's assent and support. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets after the armed forces declared they would not use force against demonstrators expressing "legitimate grievances." But the situation could now change if the generals make clear that Egyptians ought to accept Mubarak, or perhaps Vice President Omar Suleiman, remaining in charge of an orderly transition.

President Barack Obama helped push the strongman to concede to a transfer of power by sending a direct message, via envoy Frank Wisner, that Mubarak should not seek a new term. That marked a dramatic withdrawal of support for Washington's most important Arab ally — indeed, President Obama emphasized in a phone call to Mubarak after the Egyptian leader's speech that the transition away from his rule "must begin now." But Mubarak's continued resistance to any immediate abdication will complicate the challenge Washington faces in helping ensure an optimal outcome.

Further protest action (already promised, including a march Friday on the Presidential Palace) could yet force revisions in Mubarak's plan — after all, he has been forced to give ground more than once over the past week as the crisis failed to abate. Nevertheless, Wednesday also saw several thousand pro-Mubarak demonstrators rallying in support of him in Cairo, which resulted in clashes with the opposition (as it did in Alexandria). The AP reported that pro-Mubarak supporters tore down banners denouncing the president and fistfights broke out while soldiers didn't appear to intervene. Elsewhere, Internet service has started to return and state TV said authorities had eased the nighttime curfew, which will now run from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. instead of 3 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Mubarak's most telling concession may have come over the weekend, when he named a Vice President for the first time since taking power, giving the job to intelligence chief Suleiman, a man with strong backing in the military. Suleiman has long been a key aide to Mubarak and appears to be managing the regime's strategy for resolving the crisis. So the military may yet have the decisive say in setting the terms for Mubarak's departure from power. And its idea of an orderly transition is unlikely to include a cut-and-run departure into exile, which Mubarak defiantly rejected on Tuesday by vowing that he would "die on Egyptian soil."

Mubarak and Suleiman may also be betting that even if there were a million Egyptians on the street on Tuesday, they didn't necessarily speak for all of the country's 80 million people. They're clearly hoping that offering an orderly handover of power over a seven-month period may turn significant sections of the public against continuing the protest wave with its attendant economic disruption and uncertainty. And that would buy Mubarak and Suleiman time and space to shape the transition.

Even if they've recognized the need for him to bow out, the generals see Mubarak as one of their own — like every Egyptian leader since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952, Mubarak rose to the position through the senior ranks of the military. So, while it has effectively sided with the crowd in unseating Mubarak, it's less clear that the military is willing to surrender its own control over the transition, first and foremost via Vice President Suleiman, to whom Mubarak would presumably hand power even in the event that popular pressure requires that he expedite his exit.

"The succession is already under way," wrote Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven Cook, an expert in Egypt's military, on Tuesday. "The appointment of Suleiman as Vice President only underscores that the military establishment is not giving up their informal link to the presidency and the regime. If they can manage to salvage their difficult situation, the officers now in control will reconstitute the Egyptian leadership under Suleiman and Ahmed Shafiq, the new Prime Minister, who is an air force officer [like Mubarak]. The important thing now is to manage Mubarak's exit, which must be as graceful as possible at this point. For honor's sake, the brass won't have it any other way."

That scenario obviously won't appeal to the protest movement, and it's true that the self-managed transition Mubarak offered on Tuesday is a nonstarter if there are no takers among opposition groups. Yet at the very least, Mubarak and Suleiman will be hoping to split the opposition. If not, they may have to come up with a Plan B.