Four days after Egypt's military deposed Hosni Mubarak, President Barack Obama reported they were sending "the right signals."
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Egyptian sources present a different picture. They report the generals had by Tuesday barely pulled themselves together from the shock of grabbing power and toppling Mubarak Friday, Feb. 11. They found themselves saddled overnight with governing a nation of 82 million before they had a chance to appreciate what happened.
On the other hand, there was no way they could back off at that late stage for three reasons:
One, there was no one else to do it and the country would have otherwise fallen apart; two, the Egyptian army would have fallen apart; and, three, the threat not mentioned in the West that the Muslim Brotherhood and its nearly 20 million adherents would soon have come to blows with 9 million Coptic Christians and sparked a bloody civil war.
The generals therefore stepped up to the challenge.
The disturbances which ended Mubarak's reign were first ignited, according to Egyptian insiders, more than a month earlier, on Jan 1, 2011, by the massacre of 21 Coptic men, women and children in a bombing attack that also left 96 injured at a New Year celebration in their most important church in Alexandria.
The ex-Interior Minister Habib Ibrahim El-Adly, whom Mubarak sacked in the second week of February for failing to breakup the protests when they began, is now being questioned on suspicion that his agents were responsible for the church explosion.
Keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of politics
El-Adly was one of the few members of Mubarak's close circle who saw the protest disturbances coming. He tried to redirect popular opinion away from grievances with the regime and focus it on the bloody showdown between Copts and Muslims bound to have escalated from that massacre.
One way to prevent that happening is understood by the generals now at the helm as being to leave in place the constitutional clause prohibiting the establishment of political parties on the basis of religious faith.
Should Washington force its abolition, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Copts, too, would form parties and run for election.
Far from being peaceful and orderly, their campaigns would plunge the two communities into bloody warfare. That conflict might draw the two million non-Muslim Egyptian Nubians living in the southern part of the Nile Delta to the Copts' side, in pursuit of their historic aspiration to reunite the upper and lower kingdoms of Egypt. This contest might well end in the Copts and Nubians establishing a secessionist geographical entity – but not before many lives were lost.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive sources reveal that fear of these dangerous rapids held the hands of Egyptian army leaders back from ousting Mubarak without delay and kept them pushing back against Washington's demands to remove him ("now means now!").
The reluctant coup
They held back until Friday at 17:30 hours, half an hour and two minutes before Gen. Omar Suleiman went on state television to announce (inaccurately) that President Mubarak had agreed to resign and transfer power to the Army.
Up until then, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Gen. Suleiman, then vice president, were not ready to go to Mubarak and tell him he was out.
But then, at 17:45, a delegation of six generals – commanders of the 2nd and 3rd Egyptian Armies, the ground forces, the artillery corps, the engineering corps and the Western Desert units on the Libyan border – announced their men could no longer fill the shoes of the absent police in the face of the protesters. They were on the verge of breaking down and deserting en masse with their side-arms.
Only then, did Suleiman get up and say he was going on air to announce the end of Mubarak's 32 years in power. He left the room forthwith before his fellow generals uttered a word – either to endorse or counter his action.
Mubarak was left in ignorance of the decision. From a single broadcast sentence, the Egyptian president discovered he was deposed and the Armed Forces Supreme Council had assumed power – both of them against their will.
Three faces begin to stand out in the military council
The Military Council will gain in importance the longer it holds the reins of government. It is therefore important to identify the most senior generals who make up this body:
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Defense Minister;
Lt. General Sami Al-Annan, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces;
Admiral Mohab Memish, Commander of the Maritime Force;
Air Marshal Reda Hafez, Commander of the Air Force;
Lt. General Abdel Aziz Seif, Commander of the Air Defense Forces;
General Hassan al-Roueini, Commander of the Military Central Zone;
Staff General Ismail Othman, Director of the Morale Affairs Department;
General Mohsen al-Fanagry, Assistant Defense Minister;
Staff General Mohammed Abdel Nabi, Commander of the Border Guard;
Staff General Mohammed Hegazy, Commander of the Third Field Army;
Staff General Sobhy Sedky, Commander of the Second Field Army;
Gen. Mukhtar Mulla, Army Council spokesman;
Commanders of the Northern, Southern and Western zones.
The names of three generals tentatively surface
For now, none of these high-ranking officers appears to be jockeying to climb over the heads of comrades as Egypt's future ruler – military or civilian. They are all professional soldiers with little interest in or aptitude for domestic or international politics and diplomacy. At this stage, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report, they would prefer to pick one general to act as figurehead or front-man while the others pull the strings behind him.
Three optional names for this role are bandied about within the Supreme Council: Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, Commander of the Central Zone; Staff Gen. Sobhy Sedky, Commander of the Second Field Army, and Staff Gen. Mohammed Hegazi, Commander of the Third Egyptian Field Army.
Hegazi has also been named by our sources as leading the talks with the opposition parties (alongside Maj. General Abdel Fattah).
Very little information is available about any these three generals, their personal traits and politics or their qualifications for a lead role – not only outside Egypt but inside the country too.
One of them, or all three, may prove charismatic enough to catch on in the Egyptian street. He might also fall flat. The generals themselves are not sure that their high-wire scheme will work well enough to restore a measure of stability and security to the Egyptian nation. In any case, it is early days.
That being the case, President Obama's assurance that the military rulers installed in Cairo were already "sending the right signals" sounded more like self-congratulation that a true reading of the still foggy situation in the high reaches of Egypt's military regime.