President Hosni Mubarak today ended the curfew in the capital imposed after rioting by security police, but the crisis that began 11 days ago appears to have eroded his personal authority and signaled a potential rival center of power in the person of Defense Minister Abdul Halim Abu Ghazala.
In a nationally televised speech, Mubarak sought to reassure the nation about the democratic course that he said his government -- heavily funded and encouraged by Washington -- has tried to set for it.
The riots marked "the peak of pain I ever felt in my life," Mubarak said, praising the Egyptian people for refusing to join in the uprising of more than 10,000 police.
But the greatest applause from his audience in the National Assembly came not when he praised democracy or the Egyptian people, but when he praised the armed forces that rolled quickly into the streets with tanks and troops on Feb. 25 and 26 to restore order.
As Mubarak spoke, the television cameras moved in for close-ups of Abu Ghazala, who many diplomats and Egyptian analysts believe has emerged from the crisis with greatly enhanced personal power and prestige.
Contrasts are being drawn between the field marshal, seen by many analysts as decisive and effective, and the president, who is frequently criticized for failing to bring Egypt the kind of dynamic leadership many people here seem to expect.
"He is very intelligent and a really imposing man, Abu Ghazala," one senior European envoy with long experience here said last week, "and, well, you know Mubarak."
But the same diplomat, who knows both men, dismissed speculation that the stage may be set for a power struggle between the two or that Abu Ghazala might demand and receive the vacant post of vice president while keeping the powerful post of defense minister.
In Egyptian political circles there have been frequent rumors for several months that Abu Ghazala is seeking such an arrangement, but it is considered constitutionally unworkable since by holding both posts he would be at once the superior of the prime minister and his subordinate in the Cabinet.
Abu Ghazala already holds the title of deputy prime minister.
A trademark of Mubarak's presidency has been a balancing of contending forces both in and out of the government. Until the security police rioted, Interior Minister Ahmed Rushdi, who held authority over them, was an important counterweight to Abu Ghazala. Rushdi had gotten wide publicity by thwarting several subversive plots and was seen by the public as a key defender of the nation's security.
The frictions and rivalry between the 500,000 armed forces under Abu Ghazala and the 300,000 security forces under Rushdi were "very well known," one U.S. diplomat said.
But Rushdi resigned after his men mutinied, and his forces have been almost entirely disarmed and are undergoing a wholesale reorganization. In Egypt's power politics, that leaves the president and the defense minister alone at the top.
"They are rivals," the European diplomat said of Abu Ghazala and Mubarak, "but they are not foolish."
Mubarak's "image had suffered in the last few months, but still, up until 10 days ago he could have told his defense minister, 'You better retire,' " this diplomat said. "He was the president, and he had things in his hands. This the riots may have changed the weight of the situation. The power is more equal."
But the diplomat cautioned that he thinks there is a kind of "symbiosis" between the two, each needing the other.
Both are from military backgrounds. Both were put in high office by the late president Anwar Sadat. Both are known for their close ties to the United States.
Abu Ghazala was Egypt's defense attache in Washington in the 1970s and is widely attacked in the Arab press outside Egypt as being too close to Washington.
In Egypt, the diplomat said, "Abu Ghazala's popularity is restricted. In the Army itself, I'm not sure all the high-ranking people would like him to be the boss of bosses."
Moreover, the institution of the presidency in Egypt has become so central to the nation's stability since 1952 that any attempt to undermine it in this country, which has a long history of highly centralized authority, could have chaotic and dangerously unpredictable consequences, according to several analysts.
Against this background, Mubarak's speech today had been anticipated widely as a crucial opportunity to clear the air about the causes and the impact on the nation of the security police riots, which cost more than 100 lives and millions of dollars in damage.
Mubarak, speaking for 1 1/2 hours, set a tone consistent with his generally methodical and cautious approach to governing the country. His talk was long on general principles and short on specifics.
Mubarak did not indicate what, if any, findings investigators have made so far about possible conspiracies behind the riots. The uprisings spread in a few hours from the area near the pyramids to other parts of Cairo and to security police barracks in three other towns, up to 210 miles away.
Citing a necessity for preserving an independent judiciary, Mubarak said he did not want to move ahead of the public prosecutor's investigation.
Some Egyptian analysts said approvingly that they were encouraged by Mubarak's refusal to seek scapegoats for the incident.
A political scientist at Cairo University said he had worried before the speech that Mubarak would blame the incidents on subversion directed by Syria or Libya and use that as a pretext to crack down on a domestic opposition that has felt more freedom during his 4 1/2 years in power than it had for more than 30 years.
The thrust of Mubarak's speech seemed to be aimed at calming just such fears. At no time, he said, did he consider resorting to emergency decrees to restore order.
He generally praised the role of the press in putting out the facts about what occurred and suggested that this had helped ensure that Libyan and Syrian propaganda after the riots would not gain any credibility.
Syrian President Hafez Assad had described the police mutiny as "a true popular revolt" by the Egyptian people, seeking "restoration of their liberty and free will, which have been usurped by Israel through the Camp David accords."
Instead, Mubarak depicted the riots as "bloody events" committed by "a few deviationists of the security battalions -- and outlaws."
The vast majority of the Egyptian people, Mubarak said, rejected the violence and cooperated fully with the Army in its efforts to restore order. The people "put those horrendous crimes in their proper perspective and were never deceived by their advertised causes," he said.
Mubarak also seemed to rule out other reasons for the rioting. He said rumors that the conscripts would be forced to serve an extra year were "totally unfounded." He made no mention of suspected Islamic fundamentalist agitation.
By not suggesting what the real causes may have been, however, Mubarak disappointed observers who had hoped for more definitive statements.
The conscripts in the security forces are from the poorest and least educated ranks of Egyptian society. The police conscripts, who earn about $4 a month and live in conditions that one Army recruit likened to slavery, found themselves at the bottom of a frustrated society, but, unlike most Egyptians, they had guns in their hands.
Mubarak said conditions for conscripts would be improved socially, economically and culturally. But, while he outlined the tremendous economic difficulties now faced by his country, he offered no solutions beyond a general call for more "sweat" and belt-tightening.