Hosni Mubarak is stepping down tonight, according to the statements leaking from both Cairo and Washington, D.C. The president is reportedly at the Red Sea port of Sharm El Sheik, from which he is expected to depart the country within hours.
Former intelligence chief and newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman is the most likely candidate to take presidential authority under the Egyptian constitution. Suleiman is a longtime confidant of Mubarak's, who has strong ties with Western governments and the Saudi royalty. As the military's top intelligence officer, Suleiman oversaw Egypt's involvement with the United States' extraordinary-rendition program.
Another possibility under the Egyptian constitution for Mubarak would be that the speaker of the People's Assembly, Ahmad Fathi Sorour, is ceded presidential authority, in which case the Egyptian constitution would require elections within 60 days. Those elections must occur without constitutional amendments, leaving in tact the present constitution, which severely handicaps parties opposing the ruling National Democratic Party. Sorour is a longtime member of the ruling National Democratic Party and has served as speaker since 1991.
Whether protest organizers would accept Suleiman's leadership, or elections under the present constitutional obstacles, remains an open question.
Rumors of Mubarak's pending resignation built up in advance of a statement by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces that it would begin convening regularly as part of its responsibility "to safeguard the people and protect the interests of the nation." The statement may have been an indication that military officers are increasing their role in overseeing a transitional government. Previous statements by the military since Jan. 25 have included an assertion that the military would not heed orders to shoot protesters, and another recognizing the legitimate complaints of the people.
The military's latest statement occurs against the backdrop of ominous warnings by regime officials, suggesting that the military may restore order violently. "If chaos occurs, the armed forces will intervene to control the country, a step ... which would lead to a very dangerous situation," said Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit early this morning.
Until now, the military's role has been perceived as primarily neutral. A story in the Guardian this morning cast doubt on that perception, however, reporting that "the Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian." Egyptians have long associated such human-rights violations with the notorious State Security Intelligence, but the military's direct role in detaining and torturing protesters is a new, disconcerting development.