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Mubarak defiance puts U.S. on the defensive

Despite the frenzy of expectation that President Mubarak would be stepping down, he announced he is not. He agreed to relinquish some of his power. However, protesters in Tahrir Square will not be satisfied until he is gone for good. (Feb. 10)

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Late last week, the Pentagon quietly put out a call asking U.S. military officers who might have attended an American war college with an Egyptian officer to call or e-mail their counterpart. The U.S. officers weren't told to deliver any specific message.

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"Really the calls were all about maintaining connections," said the senior military official.

The lack of communication comes at a particularly volatile moment, as Egypt's military leadership weighs whether to assert itself on the streets in support of Mubarak or push him aside.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said "suspicion is higher than ever" after another day of street demonstrations accompanied by the false hope that Mubarak might resign.

Haass said it is more important than at any point in the crisis that the reform process begin urgently and include civilians in key positions, not just the uniformed military.

"This can't be seen as solely a military operation," he said. "There can't be just promises of reform down the road. There need to be some near-term examples of changes."

A former administration official involved in White House discussions on Egypt confirmed that Mubarak's decision came as a surprise.

Before the speech, most officials expected a resignation, although there had been no clear signal from Cairo of what exactly Mubarak would say in his speech, said the official who insisted on anonymity in discussing internal policy debates.

"The message out of Egypt refusing foreign diktats is pretty clear - and totally aimed at the United States," said Jon B. Alterman, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That gets Mubarak credit at home."

"One of the things that I think is often forgotten is that all of the Egyptians believe they are acting as patriots," Alterman continued. "And it's hard for the United States to appear more patriotic than even the most hated Egyptian."

Joel Rubin, a former Egypt desk officer for the State Department, said Mubarak's speech put the administration in a box, essentially daring the United States to push him out. He said the White House has little choice now but to explore new ways to sway the Mubarak's behavior - perhaps including explicit calls for his departure.

"Now is not the time to let up, just because Hosni Mubarak said so," said Rubin, deputy director of the National Security Network, a Washington think tank.

Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert who has met with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman multiple times and communicated with him in recent weeks, said the vice president and other top Mubarak aides appeared to have been outmaneuvered.

"The wise men around Mubarak have been outplayed by him," said Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. "He gradually took the cards out of their hands."

Staff writers Joby Warrick, Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, Anne E. Kornblut, and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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