Hosni Mubarak is still president of Egypt. That much is certain. What is not certain is what kind of powers he still has and whether he will leave the country or the seat of government before elections in September.
In a nationwide address, Mubarak announced that he was transferring his presidential powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman. This met one of the opposition's key demands: that Mubarak no longer be president. Technically, he still is; but his powers as such don't extend very far anymore. However, he is still the figurehead in what is likely to be a government in flux for awhile, as Suleiman and other newly appointed ministers work their way a transition from autocratic rule to a more representative government.
The army played a key pre-speech role, announcing that they were in charge of the government, but that arrangement seems in doubt now that Suleiman, the country's former intelligence chief, has assumed presidential powers.
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square immediately reacted with dismay and anger, preferring to have Mubarak leave altogether rather than just give up many of the powers that they didn't think he should have had anyway.
The army's delicate balance of support for the new arrangement while also supporting noninterference in the largely peaceful protests remains in place, despite marked increases in civil unrest, punctuated by a large labor strike on Wednesday, not only in Cairo but also in other cities. Workers refused to report to transport, electricity, and media companies; farmers gathered by the hundreds to complain about their lack of income.
The protests began with a few thousand people gathering in Tahrir Square to voice their discontent. After a few days, the crowds were noticeably larger, filled mostly with younger people but also populated by poor, hungry, and unemployed people who had spent the better part of their lives struggling to stay out of poverty. After the organized strike on Wednesday of people who are very much employed, the protesters upped the ante again with a group of lawyers actually attempting to storm one of Mubarak's palaces. Police kept them from entering the building but did little else.
The plan now, according to Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, is to form a committee to decide just how and when to implement constitutional reforms demanded by opposition leaders like Mohamed El Baradei. Among the top targets will be the freedom-inhibiting emergency laws introduced by Mubarak when he took over as president in the wake of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Under these laws, police have nearly unlimited powers of arrest and detention; so far, however, police have been sparing in their enforcement of these laws.
Mubarak has withstood calls to step down from fellow heads of state around the world. He has also gained support in some sectors, most notably from Saudi Arabia, whose ruler, King Abdullah, has said that if the United States removes its foreign aid to Egypt, then Saudi Arabia will fill that gap.
For their part, many of the thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square planned to be part of a huge crowd on Friday and also planned to march to the Oruba palace, Mubarak's main residence, which is a few miles away from the square. If that march happens, whether the protesters are let back into the square remains to be seen.