CAIRO (AP) — Ultimately, only the military can tell President Hosni Mubarak — one of its own — that it's time to step down.
Egypt's most powerful and most secretive institution has so far given no hint of whether it will abandon the 82-year-old former air force commander and accede to protesters' demand for his ouster after nearly three decades of autocratic rule.
But it will likely do whatever it takes to preserve its status as the final source of power in the country and the economic perks it gets from the regime and from the considerable sector of civilian business ventures it has carved out for itself.
The army is clearly torn.
If it asks Mubarak to spare the country more violence and step down, it would throw the door wide open to the possibility of the first civilian president, ending the hold it has had on power since a 1952 coup overthrew Egypt's monarchy. Every president since has come from the military.
But dislodging protesters by force from Cairo's central Tahrir Square, epicenter of the demonstrations, would portray the military in the same light as the widely hated police, risking a popular backlash that could taint its carefully guarded reputation as protector of the people.
"The challenge is to convince the generals in and out of uniform that their interests are best served by a more inclusive and transparent political system once Mubarak leaves the stage," Haim Malka of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a commentary Friday.
"Regardless of how events unfold, the military will aim to preserve its unique position. ... The question then is not so much when Mubarak steps down, but what kind of post-Mubarak political system the military brass seeks to shape."
If Mubarak does go, the military will surely have a strong role in running the country during a potentially stormy democratic transition. It will be in a position to weigh in heavily as Egypt's factions negotiate over reforming the constitution to bring greater democracy.
In American recognition of the army's importance, U.S. officials say talks are under way between the Obama administration and senior Egyptian officials on the possible immediate resignation of Mubarak and the formation of a military-backed caretaker government to prepare the country for elections this year.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing sensitive diplomatic talks, said the creation of an interim government is just one of several possibilities under discussion.
The protesters too recognize the military must have a seat in the post-Mubarak leadership. Their concern is more on breaking the ruling party's monopoly on political power than on ending military influence.
Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the protesters' negotiating team, said Friday that Mubarak should step down and let a presidential council made up of several figures — including the military — rule for a year to rewrite the constitution ahead of elections.
Mubarak, too, is looking to the military to secure his position.
He appointed Omar Suleiman, a former army general and intelligence chief, as his vice president and picked another military man, former air force officer Ahmed Shafiq as his new prime minister, in a Cabinet shake-up.
Notably, the shake-up purged the government of the wealthy businessmen politicians who came to dominate the administration the past decade — led, in fact, by Mubarak's son Gamal — and who were long viewed with deep suspicion by the military. Since their ouster, several of those businessmen ex-ministers are now under criminal investigation, hit with travel bans and asset freezes.
The protesters massed in Tahrir Square are clearly trying to draw the military into their camp.
"The people and the army are one hand!" they chanted as Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi paid a brief visit Friday to the square and chatted with some protesters.
But the military's attitude toward the protests has been difficult to pin down.
For example, the military spokesman, Gen. Ismail Etman, called their demands "legitimate" but later appealed to them to go home so that normal life can be restored.
The army has vowed not to use force against the demonstrations, and for days Tahrir has been ringed by tanks and soldiers in an attempt to maintain some order. The military has made no attempt to stop the public from joining the movement and has even helped it to keep out police in civilian clothes or ruling party backers who could stir up trouble.
But when regime supporters attacked the square on Wednesday and battled with the protesters for two days in scenes of mayhem, the troops guarding the square stood by and watched largely without intervening.
That may have been because of a desire not to be seen as taking sides or breaking its vow not to use force against Egyptians. But it may have also represented the military's discomfort with its role: Suleiman on Thursday said the deployment to keep order has placed a "large burden" on the army, carrying out police duties it had never shouldered in the past.
The army was called out after the police clashed with protesters in heavy fighting soon after the demonstrations began on Jan. 25. Then a week ago, the security forces vanished, allowing a wave of looting and arson around Cairo. That disappearance has still not been explained, and police forces have only partially returned to the streets since.
The deployment of tanks and thousands of troops in Cairo and other flashpoint cities has brought the military into large-scale contact with civilians for the first time in more than two decades.
It's not a position the army is comfortable with. The military reduced its political visibility over the years but kept its position as the real source of power in the country.
Over the years, it has built up its business activities, including building roads and airports, food processing and manufacturing. That caused frictions with the businessmen whose political power grew in the ruling party, since the military cut them off from some lucrative contracts.
It also holds wide esteem among Egyptians. Many credit it with what they view as their victory over Israel in the 1973 Middle East war. Its adherence to a military strategy that places Israel as Egypt's most likely enemy in any future war resonates with the population.
That has made many look with comfort on its major role in dealing with the crisis.
"The critical stage that the country finds itself in now requires military people with a high level of discipline and loyalty," said Hossam Sweileim, a retired army general who runs a research center.
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