WASHINGTON — The Egyptian military appeared to have a new commander in chief Thursday — Omar Suleiman, a notorious former intelligence chief who within minutes of gaining new power ordered demonstrators in Tahrir Square to go back to their homes and jobs.
But with angry protesters saying they'll remain in the square until President Hosni Mubarak actually steps down, the question that has fixated analysts of Egyptian affairs for the past two weeks remained: What will the military do? Will it continue to keep its Abrams tanks parked as protesters threaten to march toward the presidential palace? Or will it force the people to listen to the demands of the newly empowered vice president and make them go home?
Thursday's turbulent events set the stage Friday for what potentially could be the most violent day in the 18-day stalemate and a test of the military's patience with both the government and the protesters.
Up to now, both U.S. officials and average Egyptians have praised the army for its restraint, allowing protesters to clamber over its tanks and embrace its soldiers through days of protests.
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But Suleiman's direct order to the protesters to go home could alter the military's approach. Or it could show, as many of the protesters have hoped, that the army really 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. Throughout the crisis he has threatened a heavy hand against protesters, blaming the demonstrations on foreign provocateurs.
U.S. defense officials remain in the dark about the military's intent. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hadn't spoken to their Egyptian counterparts since the weekend, and as recently as Wednesday officials at the Pentagon said they believed the military had stabilized the security situation.
The prospect of a military takeover had been voiced on Wednesday. "Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation through imposing martial law, and the army in the streets?" Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Wednesday on PBS' "NewsHour."
On Thursday, the Egyptian military 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.
The last military coup in Egypt took place in 1952, when a major general and an ambitious lieutenant colonel forced Egypt's young king to flee after a three-day siege of the palace.
Two years later, the colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, became Egypt's second president at age 36 and remains one of the country's most popular figures, more than 40 years after his death.
But it's not clear today whether another colonel could rise to prominence by siding with the protesters.
No one thinks the current top leaders of the army have any interest in rebellion. Defense Minister Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi is 75 and known as a Mubarak loyalist.
Yet the Egyptian army is a conscript force; which means that for many rank-and-file soldiers the protesters are family members whose quality of life has deteriorated under the Mubarak regime. That would make it difficult for generals to order their soldiers to fire on the crowds.
That leaves many wondering about what the army's colonels and majors think. But despite 30 years of training Egyptian officers, Pentagon officials say they do not know what officers at those ranks are thinking.
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