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Mubarak's defiance puts U.S. on the defensive

WASHINGTON — With angry protesters vowing to remain in Cairo's Tahrir Square until President Hosni Mubarak steps down, the question that has fixated analysts of Egyptian affairs for the past two weeks remained: What will the military do?

A second question arose after a defiant Mubarak lashed out at the Obama administration as an unwanted interloper: What else can President Barack Obama do?

His administration clearly struggled Thursday to keep pace with events in Egypt and retool its strategy. The White House appeared taken aback by Mubarak's speech. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, testified Thursday morning that there was a "strong likelihood" that Mubarak would step down by the end of the day.

U.S. officials said Panetta was basing his statement not on secret intelligence but on media broadcasts, which began circulating before he sat down before the House Intelligence Committee. But Obama, too, seemed to believe Egypt was on the cusp of dramatic change. Speaking at Northern Michigan University, he said, "We are witnessing history unfold," adding, "America will do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy."

Later, in a statement after Mubarak's speech, Obama said "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."

Since the Cairo protests began last month, administration officials have urged Mubarak and the powerful military that enforces his rule to begin a process of political reform that would guarantee fair elections this fall. They have done so without calling for Mubarak's resignation, a move that would unsettle a host of other autocratic U.S. allies, from Amman to Riyadh, and inspire opposition movements often at odds with U.S. interests in the Arab world.

But Obama's message has come off as mixed, and the administration's attempts to distance itself from the Egyptian government may have come at a price. While administration officials described an open line of communication between the two governments when the protests began, there are signs that the line now appears to have closed down considerably.

In recent days, the Washington Post reports, senior Pentagon officials have largely been out of contact with their Egyptian counterparts.

On Thursday afternoon, according to the Post, a senior defense official said Defense Secretary Robert Gates last spoke with the Egyptian minister of defense, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, six days ago. Five days have passed since Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last spoke to his Egyptian counterpart, the Post said.

The lack of communication comes at a particularly volatile moment, as Egypt's military leadership weighs whether to assert itself on the streets in support of Mubarak or push him aside.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said "suspicion is higher than ever." He said it is more important than at any point in the crisis that the reform process begin urgently and include civilians in key positions, not just the uniformed military.

Thursday's turbulent events set the stage for today to potentially be the most violent day in the 18-day stalemate and a test of the military's patience with the government and the protesters.

Vice President Omar Suleiman's direct order to the protesters to go home could change the military's restrained approach. Or it could show, as many of the protesters have hoped, that the army stands with the demonstrators.

On Thursday, al Araibya reported that Suleiman, 74, threatened to order the army to act if protesters do not accept the changes.

As for the military itself, it sent mixed messages. It issued a communique early in the day, saying that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had convened "to consider developments to date, and decided to remain in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation."

Shortly after, Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, appeared before the crowd in Tahrir Square and said, "We will respond to all the demands of the people."

The crowd interpreted that as a sign that Mubarak was stepping down. Some in the crowd held up their hands in V-for-victory signs and shouted "God is great." They then waited for hours for what they thought was Mubarak's resignation speech, only to hear him vow to stay until September.

The source of the confusion was the subject of much speculation. Among the possible scenarios was that there had been a power struggle between Mubarak supporters and the military and that the military was as surprised as anyone by Mubarak's speech.

Another explanation: The military believes Mubarak's steps to revamp the constitution and his agreement not to run for re-election while turning over executive power was enough to satisfy the protesters' demands.

"It remains unclear to me how much of what happened Thursday was calculated," said Jon Alterman, the Middle East director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Information from the Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.

Egypt's military

The military is far more than just a defense-related institution. It controls factories, hotels and businesses, and its generals constitute a stratum of Egypt's elite.

Active military force: 450,000 (320,000 in army)

Reserves: 410,000

Paramilitary forces: 330,000

Central security forces: 250,000

Defense minister: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 75, known by some officers as "Mubarak's poodle," has appeared among protesters to encourage them to leave.

Chief of staff of the armed forces: Lt. Gen. Sami Annan, 63, appeared in Tahrir Square pledging to meet demands of protesters and to safeguard their security; closer to U.S. commanders than Tantawi.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists; Global Security; Time; New York Times

Mubarak's defiance puts U.S. on the defensive 02/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 7:18am]
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