Egypt military embraces change, but is it sincere?

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While Egyptian protesters on Friday celebrated achievement of their no. 1 goal — the removal of President Hosni Mubarak — it remained unclear whether the Egyptian military’s assumption of power will mark the beginning of a transition to a more-democratic system of government or simply a shuffling of the Mubarak regime deck.

“These are stalwarts of the regime, all of whom were handpicked by Mubarak himself,” Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, said of the supreme military council now ruling the country. “They have very much been in charge by virtue of their collaboration with and loyalty to Mubarak.”

The Egyptian military largely retains the confidence of the Egyptian people — in stark contrast to the police and security forces — but many protesters have expressed concern about whether its senior leadership has truly embraced their call for political change.

The members of the country’s new ruling body — the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces — are very familiar to the Egyptian public: Gen. Omar Suleiman, vice president and former intelligence chief; Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi; Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, chief of staff of the Egyptian army; and Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq, minister for civil aviation.

Others reported to have attended the council’s emergency meeting on Thursday include Vice Adm. Mohab Mamish, the Navy commander-in-chief; Air Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, commander of the Air Force; and Lt. Gen. Abd El Aziz Seif-Eldeen, commander of air defense.

Suleiman's status unclear
The status of Suleiman, who announced Mubarak’s resignation in a short statement on Egypt’s state-run TV on Friday, is unclear.

STRATFOR, a U.S.-based “global intelligence” firm, said in an email alert to its subscribers on Friday that “Suleiman’s statement is the clearest indication thus far that the military has carried out a coup led by … Defense Minister Tantawi. It is not clear whether Suleiman will remain as the civilian head of the army-led government.”

And U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that they believe Suleiman, 74, will essentially fade from view.

These officials said senior Egyptian military officials turned on Mubarak Thursday night, after the president “called an audible on them” and refused to resign in a national address. Suleiman, who addressed the Egyptian people shortly after Mubarak and urged them to halt the protests, cast his fate with Mubarak and that hurt him with his military colleagues, they said.

Matthew Axelrod, former Egypt director at the Pentagon and later a Fulbright scholar, said Suleiman's fate could provide an early bellwether of the military council's willingness to embrace political reform.

"If Suleiman stays in power, it's a shuffling of the deck," he said. "If he leaves and a new figure comes into power, it could be a new stream of leadership."

'Reluctant to change'Tantawi's prominence on the military council also could be an indicator of its direction.

U.S. officials have characterized Tantawi, 75, as someone "reluctant to change," according to a 2008 State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks website. The cable noted that Tantawi "has opposed both economic and political reform that he perceives as eroding central government power."

Whatever their roles going forward, the military council’s members presumably have big stakes in maintaining the political and economic status quo, said Hashemi, a member of’s panel of experts that has been answering questions on the crisis since shortly after the protests erupted on Jan. 25.

“In any authoritarian system … one way of solidifying political power and establishing loyalty is to give over parts of the economy to the military, so they have a much bigger investment in the political system as it exists,” he said. “Many in the senior military corps have made lots of money by virtue of the positions they hold. … Exactly how much money is at stake and which generals have what we don’t know because it is an authoritarian system. But we can assume they stand to lose not just politically but economically if there is a transition to democracy.”

Council promises 'legitimate' government
The military council has promised a free and fair presidential election for September, and on Friday a spokesman said in a brief statement on state-run TV that it will not act as a substitute for a "legitimate" government.

“We know the extent of the gravity and seriousness of this issue and the demands of the people to initiate radical changes," the statement said. "The higher military council is studying this issue to achieve the hopes of our great people.

"The council will issue a statement outlining the steps and procedures and directives that will be taken, confirming at the same time that there is no alternative to the legitimacy acceptable to the people."

But given the military's long hold on the country — each of its three presidents since the republic was founded in 1953 has been an army officer — many observers are skeptical that the council will freely embrace change.

Robert Danin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs and now a senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the coming weeks will be key in determining whether the ruling council intends to follow through on its promises or is hoping to defuse the protests and make only minor concessions.

“The military has responded to the will of the people in a way that the Mubarak government did not,” he said. “They military say they will lead the way toward democratic civilian rule — they will have to demonstrate in the days and weeks ahead that they are committed to that, and not to simply replacing one military man with another.”

But Axelrod, the former Pentagon official, said the military men may no longer have the latter option.

“The fact that the people were able to demand that the president step down is a watershed moment in Egyptian politics,” he said. “It will now be understood that popular dissent can make a market change, which it wasn’t before.”