The Guardian newspaper of London reported today that Vice President Omar Suleiman threatened that an enormous Egyptian protest march on the Presidential Palace on Friday could lead to a military coup if the protesters don't accept Suleiman's terms for a timetable on transitioning the government.
The implications of this are profound, particularly with the new revelation that the military has been actively involved in the torturing of protesters since the revolution began sixteen days ago. It leaves the entire question of where the military's overall loyalties lie -- with the people on the streets or to the chain of command under Suleiman and Mubarak.
Friday's protest demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace will represent the acid test as to which way the world will see the Egyptian revolution flow. If the military peacefully supports the rights of the demonstrators and prevents violence from agent provocateurs, then there will be clear signals that the military is officially insubordinate and Mubarak and Suleiman's days are indeed numbered. If on the other hand, the military responds with a show of deadly force in guarding the Presidential Palace or provocateurs are successful in creating a major incident, there will be a massacre and hopes for any kind of democratic transition will be doomed.
The role that the United States plays in this demonstration will be critical. Vice President Joe Biden has already signaled that the current regime needs to rescind the emergency laws that have been in effect for many, many years along with calls for freedom of the press. But at the same time the Obama administration has generally sided with Suleiman in recognizing that constitutional difficulties in transitioning to democracy will mean some time is necessary before there can really be a more open and honest government in Cairo.
From a military standpoint, it must be remembered that until the 28th of January, huge elements of the Egyptian high military command were in Washington, DC discussing foreign aid arrangements even as the protesters were demonstrating in Takhir Square. Thus it must be assumed that the US military has the closest working arrangements with the top brass, and should be able to telegraph to the Egyptians which way the wind is blowing in Washington.
Barack Obama must at this point be torn between his personal urge to encourage democracy and the conservatives' impulse to defend the Egyptian military as the central source of authority within the US government. It's obvious that Israel would vastly prefer that the existing Mubarak regime stay in place.
From a wild card angle, while the US may have very cozy relations with the Egyptian generals, in many coup d'etats in the past it's been the colonels (disaffected with their chances for promotion) that have been the deciding factors in throwing their troops support in favor of one faction or the other.
Friday will be a critical and dramatic chapter in providing clues as to how Egyptian society will shake out, as well as a potential road map as to how other dominoes in the Jasmine Revolution will follow.