What caused the Egyptian military to blink?

WASHINGTON — Three key developments likely led the Egyptian military to abandon its support for President Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of political crisis, Obama administration officials, U.S. military officers and Mideast experts agreed Friday, even as they said they were in the dark about the exact chain of events.

• Labor protests that erupted Wednesday throughout Egypt threatened the security of the state and could have forced the army to become the nation’s policeman, a role commanders did not want.

• The reaction to Mubarak’s speech Thursday, when he refused to step down, was far more virulent than the military had expected and put the army in a position where it might clash with protesters to protect state property, including the presidential palace and the offices of state-run television.

• Most significantly, perhaps, some rank and file soldiers took off their uniforms and joined the protesters, threatening the order and discipline of the army itself.

Each of those developments put the military — the country’s most respected institution — in an untenable position: Cracking down on protesters to preserve the economy and the state and keep Mubarak in power.

“Above all else, the Egyptian army would not want Egyptians to attack other Egyptians,” said Jon Alterman, the Middle East director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

All of the people interviewed for this story acknowledged that it’s likely to be days, if not weeks, before they know exactly what drove Mubarak from power in a wild 19-hour span that left the world grasping for an explanation. Officials and officers spoke anonymously due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Even the Egyptian military seemed slightly bewildered. As protesters massed for what they promised would be a march on the presidential palace, the military announced at midday Friday that it would support Mubarak’s plan to remain in office to guide the country’s political transformation.

Then just four hours later, Mubarak’s handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, appeared on television to announce Mubarak’s resignation and the assumption of power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It wasn’t for another two hours that a council spokesman made another statement — praising Mubarak for putting the country’s interests above his own and saying the council was “studying the situation.” He also physically saluted as he called those killed in the protests “martyrs.”

The military’s role in bringing the crisis to a climax was hardly a surprise. From the beginning, most analysts had agreed that, as in Tunisia last month, the Egyptian army would dictate the outcome — even as it tried to remain neutral, limiting its actions to protecting government buildings and national treasures such as the Egyptian Museum, where the artifacts of Egypt’s long history are displayed.

What remains unclear is precisely at what point the Egyptian army abandoned Mubarak. Was it after his disastrous speech Thursday night in which he said “this is not about me” as thousands chanted in Tahrir Square “leave”? Or was it the next day, when Egyptians, including some soldiers, rejected Mubarak’s insistence that he remain in charge?

William Quandt, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Virginia, said he suspected that the military’s generals, who owe their careers to Mubarak, had given him one last chance Thursday to make his case to the Egyptian people. Had the speech been better received, they probably would not have moved.

“There had to be some moment … where there had to be a pause as they listened to that speech,” Quandt said. “There had to be people in the military who were ready for the tipping point. Maybe they felt it happened (Friday) morning” when soldiers began abandoning posts.

Two senior administration officials told McClatchy Newspapers that they believe the tipping point came after the speech, but they doubted that the actions of some of the army’s conscript members and lower-ranking officers who abandoned their posts actually drove the decision to depose Mubarak.

When the military realized the speech, in which Mubarak said he had passed some of his powers to Suleiman, had generated both anger in the streets and confusion among U.S. officials and others, the military felt it needed to clarify its role — and that could only happen if Mubarak stepped down.

“We saw some indication of soldiers taking off their uniforms but they may have been caught up in the jovial atmosphere. We don’t know that they split,” one of the officials said. “From our view, Mubarak’s speech was unconvincing, and when the military leadership saw the speech not only didn’t convince people but mobilized them, they said ‘Game’s up.'”

Quandt noted that the Egyptian military had to be aware that not only was its position in the hearts of Egyptians at risk, but also its status with the United States, which provides it with $1.3 billion in aid annually.

President Barack Obama’s rebuke of Mubarak’s remarks late Thursday night suggested that that aid could be in jeopardy.

“I think the military realizes they want to survive this and with a relationship with the United States,” Quandt said.

Administration officials conceded they were uncertain Mubarak would resign until it happened. Like many Americans, they remained glued to television watching events unfold.

By the end of the day, officials admitted they had more questions than answers — not just what had taken place on Friday, but what was likely to happen in the days and weeks ahead when the Supreme Council must set up a transition process.

Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to their counterparts after Mubarak’s speech Thursday — the fifth conversation for each since the crisis began and the first since the weekend. But interviews with people briefed on those talks indicated nothing was said that provided insight into what was about to take place.

“It won’t be clear for days where each side came out. This is going to take some time to unfold,” said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. And going forward, “I don’t think we have any way to know now what Egypt will look like next month,” he said.

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