Egypt Braces for a Showdown Between Defiant Mubarak and Protesters

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Opposition supporters attend Friday prayer in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011.

President Hosni Mubarak has spoken, defiantly dashing the almost giddy expectations in Cairo and Washington that he was about to step aside, making clear that he and his regime have no intention of substantially heeding the demands of opponents. On Friday, those who have been in the streets for 18 days demanding Mubarak's ouster began to deliver their response — in the form of escalated protest actions, having already moved into positions close to the presidential palace and state-TV headquarters (as of 5.00a.m. ET, several hundred people had gathered outside the palace and state television). And as the vision outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last weekend of an "orderly transition" under the guidance of Vice President Omar Suleiman threatens to devolve into a bloodbath, much may now depend on whether Egypt's increasingly assertive military brass shares its Commander in Chief's approach to resolving the crisis.

The orderly transition scenario, at least in the optimistic version touted in Washington, involves Mubarak handing power to Suleiman who would then oversee the constitutional changes, negotiated in good faith with the opposition, required for holding a democratic election to choose a new President. The regime would demonstrate its bona fides by immediately lifting the State of Emergency — which gives it the power to arbitrarily arrest activists and effectively criminalizes opposition political activity — and freeing political detainees. But the grim reality laid bare by Mubarak in his late-night address — and also previously and subsequently by Suleiman — is that all of that may be wishful thinking. Mubarak plans to remain President until a replacement is elected (though both Israeli and Arab TV are reporting that Mubarak has now left Cairo, possibly to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has a villa); the regime is initiating constitutional changes as it sees fit, while dialogue with the opposition has stalled after Suleiman made clear that he has no intention of meeting their terms. Both Suleiman and Mubarak insist that the State of Emergency can be lifted only once "conditions" allow — the same argument that the regime has used for years — while thousands of Egyptians are believed to have been detained by the security forces in the course of the current protests.

In short, in the opposition's mind Suleiman has made his own agenda indistinguishable from that of Mubarak, and it appears increasingly unlikely that they'll trust the Vice President to oversee the transition.

"There is no way that the Egyptian people right now are ready to accept either Mubarak or his Vice President," opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said late Thursday. "Suleiman is considered to be an extension of Mubarak, they are twins. Neither of them is acceptable to the people — even Suleiman is less acceptable."

The Obama Administration appears to have harbored overly optimistic expectations of its longtime allies in Cairo. CIA chief Leon Panetta publicly stated on Thursday that there was "a strong likelihood that President Mubarak may step down," and Obama, speaking before the Egyptian leader's anticipated valedictory address, broke from his "win the future" domestic political script while on a visit to Michigan to hail the fact that "we are witnessing history unfold" in Egypt. Mubarak's speech prompted another scolding from the White House, which released a statement demanding that "the Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy." But Mubarak's own speech made clear that he'd file such admonitions under "foreign dictates" that he planned to defy.

The regime, of course, is not reducible to the personality of Mubarak, or of Suleiman. And there had been plenty of indications Thursday of a lack of cohesion in its top echelons, with senior officials giving contradictory indications over whether Mubarak would stand down. In the hours before Mubarak's speech, state TV fueled speculation that a sea change might be afoot by offering apparently sympathetic coverage of Thursday's protests.

But by far the most intriguing development came with the release of a statement dubbed "Communiqué No. 1" from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, meeting for just the third time in Egypt's history — and doing so without the presence of the Commander in Chief, President Mubarak, or Vice President Suleiman (although it was chaired by Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi). The Council expressed the military's "commitment to protect the people" and its support of their "legitimate demands," and vowed to "continue meeting on a continuous basis to examine measures to be taken to protect the nation and its gains and the ambitions of the great Egyptian people." Although press reports of statements from a military commander at Tahrir Square created the impression that the armed forces were backing the rebellion, the official statement was a lot more ambiguous, never defining just whom it was protecting from what, or exactly which demands it deems legitimate.

The title of the Supreme Council's statement suggested it was the first of a series — if not the traditional language of an officer corps that has taken power and is now communicating with the citizenry over the heads of civilian authority. And Communiqué No. 2. did duly land late Friday morning Egypt time via a televised statement. The military vowed to lift the country's 30-year state of emergency when the "current situation has ended," and reiterated a free and fair presidential election, in addition to constitutional changes and the protection of the nation. Yet also contained was the emphasizing of, "the need to resume orderly work in the government installations and a return to normal life, preserve the interests and property of our great people."

And with the defiance of both Mubarak and Suleiman likely only to fuel — rather than to end — confrontation and instability, a moment of truth may be looming for the military. Its commanders have managed to hedge their bets until now, but the regime's leaders are demanding an end to the protests, while the protesters are threatening to escalate. Even if it restrains itself once again from intervening in another day of rage on Friday — although that may become difficult with crowds marching on facilities such as the presidential palace and state-TV headquarters — the military is going to be asked sooner rather than later to help clear the streets.