But if the military was in fact trying to pressure Mubarak out of office, he resisted—for now. His handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, who is also the nation's intelligence chief, appeared on TV soon after Mubarak's speech, telling the protesters, "Go home, go back to your work … don't pay attention to satellite television."
The questions now: Will someone on the inside try to oust Mubarak again? If Mubarak orders the army to disperse the crowds, will the officers and rank-in-file fall in line—or resist his orders? Or will the army itself fracture, with some officers obeying their president and others joining the opposition? In fact, now that Suleiman has publicly sided with Mubarak, can the army resist the regime's orders without fracturing?
Among the stash of secret diplomatic cables recently unearthed by WikiLeaks was one from the U.S. embassy in Cairo in 2008. It told of "a disgruntled mid-level officer corps" within the Egyptian army, "harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates." The cable might prove more prophetic than its author could possibly have imagined.
In a brand-new way, then, the balance of power now resides with the army. What are the implications for Egyptian democracy?
Military rule doesn't necessarily bode ill for its prospects. In some countries, Turkey for instance, the military has played a progressive role, advancing the causes of secular society and representative rule.
An Egypt untethered from Mubarak could follow a similar path. Most of its military's officers are college-educated, many have been trained at U.S. military academies, and the upper echelon—through extensive arms purchases especially—have maintained frequent contact with U.S., British, and French officers. The army is widely respected by the Egyptian people—a sentiment that's been solidified, and perhaps reciprocated, in these past two weeks of protests in Tahrir Square.
Still, there are limits to this line of thinking. If a group of officers does wind up ousting the president, whatever the motivations or circumstances, that is the definition of a military coup d'etat.
At this point, though, a coup may be the only way out. No doubt U.S. officials are extremely disappointed by Suleiman's decision to side with Mubarak. He has been a close ally to the United States, if sometimes on the very dark side. As Jane Mayer has reported in The New Yorker, Suleiman has actively aided the Central Intelligence Agency in handling the "rendition" (and subsequent interrogation) of suspected jihadists. The Israelis were no doubt also hoping that he would simply take Mubarak's place, as Suleiman has been the main enforcer of the peace treaty that's secured their southern border—and architect of the policy that has blocked attempts to funnel arms through Egypt to Hamas.
In any case, there is nothing now standing between the protesting masses and Mubarak's self-aggrandizing rule—except, potentially, the army or, rather, elements within the army, and perhaps not the top echelon at that.
There are few other civic institutions, mainly because Mubarak has shrewdly blocked any such institutions from forming. This is in part how he has hung on to power as long—and, so it seemed, as firmly—as he has: by claiming that, if he goes, the Muslim Brotherhood or anarchy will follow.
Mubarak's departure would have opened up the possibility that democratic institutions—real political parties, labor unions, professional courts, and so forth—might be created: not overnight, but along a timetable whose end was in sight. Now the possibilities seem more narrow than ever. This has all along been a classic "revolution of rising expectations." In the past two weeks, the expectations have risen to new heights. Today they were dashed to new levels of intensity. And so the revolution may escalate to new levels of rage.