Is Egypt Experiencing a Silent Military Coup?

The transfer of powers to the army represents a change in the balance of power between two of the most powerful people in Egypt, Defense Minister Tantawi and Vice-President Suleiman.

On the morning after President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, the tent city at the center of Tahrir Square remains untouched. The Arab television networks broadcast the hundreds of Egyptians arriving to the square, waving Egyptian flags and even dancing in circles. Soldiers are removing roadblocks and barbed wire.

Al-Ahram, the newspaper of the old establishment, published an uncensored edition Saturday morning for the first time, and its lead headline read, "The people topple the regime." Friday night fireworks lit up the sky as soon as Vice-President Suleiman announced Mubarak's resignation.

egypt - Reuters - February 12 2011

A feeling of jubilation, of history in the making, envelops all. But the big questions now begin to drift in the air, and the euphoria is expected to dissipate.

Suleiman announced on Saturday that all of the President's responsibilities have been passed on to the High Council of the Egyptian armed forces. This was in contradiction to remarks about the transfer of power to the Vice-President made by Mubarak and Suleiman himself on Thursday.

Former general intelligence chief General Safwat al-Zaiat said on Friday afternoon that he thought Mubarak's and Suleiman's announcements from Thursday were in contradiction to the wishes of the army chiefs.

An Egyptian News Agency reported that the Friday announcement that the army is taking over the powers of the president came after the army gave Mubarak an ultimatum to leave. Are we witnessing a silent military coup? It's not clear.

Another issue which remains unclear is the relationship between the army council, headed by Defense Minster Hussein Tantawi, and the man who is supposedly the number two man in the civilian government, Vice-President Omar Suleiman.

We're talking about the strongest figures in the Mubarak regime. Both of them were perceived as potential candidates to replace the president. If on January 29, 4 days after the beginning of the riots, Suleiman appeared to be the strongest person in Egypt, chosen to inherit the presidency with his appointment to vice-president and receipt of some of Mubarak's powers on Thursday, it would seem that there has now been a reversal in their relative positions, and Tantawi, as chief of the armed forces, has become the dominant figure in the country.

Tantawi, aged 76, is considered a war hero in Egypt for having received a medal for his role as commander of an army battalion during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the infamous battles in the Sinai. In the last few years he developed excellent connections with the defense establishment in Israel, and every sitting Israeli Defense Minister in the last several years has met with him on more than one occasion.

In any case, it is difficult to say how these two leaders will deal with one another and with the continuing protests of the January 25 movement. Protest leaders have announced that the demonstrations will continue until all of their demands have been fulfilled.

Among other demands, the protesters want the constitution annulled, the two houses of parliament dissolved, the emergency laws cancelled, and all political prisoners released. Most of these demands will probably be met in the near future.

Transferring power from the president to the army high council in essence annuls the constitution. The army may announce the dissolution of parliament even on Saturday. The question is when, if ever, new elections will take place, and what political parties will take part? Or, in other words, are we looking at a new army junta, or a temporary stage preparing the way for democracy?

Egypt continues in the meantime to follow the pathos-filled dramatic announcements by the Egyptian army spokesperson which are supposed to clarify these issues. Up until now, the army has made three pronouncements which have been of almost no substance. Everyone is awaiting communiqué number four, which will hopefully shed some light on the new political situation in Egypt.