Egypt’s Future Is In The Hands Of The Military
As protests continue despite President Mubarak’s efforts to placate them, it’s more clear than ever that what happens next in Egypt depends on what the Egyptian military does:
Even as armored military vehicles deployed around important Egyptian government institutions on Friday for the first time in decades, it remained difficult to predict what role the armed forces might play in either quelling the disturbances or easing President Hosni Mubarak from power.
“Are they on the side of the nation or are they on the side of the regime?” a former senior Western diplomat with long service in Cairo asked. “That distinction had been blurred. We are now seeing a modern test of whether there is a separation between the two.”
The Egyptian military, the world’s 10th largest, is powerful, popular and largely opaque.
The military carried out the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy and has considered itself the shepherd of the revolution ever since; all four presidents in the ensuing years have been military generals.
But Mr. Mubarak, who led the Air Force before rising to prominence when President Anwar el-Sadat appointed him vice president in 1975, worked hard to keep the army out of overt politics and under his control.
In one famous incident, he dismissed Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, a popular, charismatic war hero, from his post as defense minister in 1989. The general had been tied to a smuggling scandal, but most analysts thought he had been fired because his public profile was too high.
No general has sought to curry public favor since. The current defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, an unpopular man in his late 70s, is considered unlikely to challenge Mr. Mubarak.
When Tunisia exploded in chaos this month, the decision of the military chief not to fire on protesters was seen as a decisive factor in driving President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali out of the country. No one thinks a Mubarak loyalist like General Tantawi would play that role, but at some point his top subordinates might consider it. (Senior members of the general staff were in Washington when the violence erupted and hurried home.)
The army commands broad respect in Egypt. Demonstrators cheered on Friday as tanks deployed in front of government buildings like the Foreign Ministry and the main broadcast center. The demonstrators were partly inspired by the Tunisian example, analysts said, and some hoped that the military might play a similar role in Egypt.
The public’s respect contrasts sharply with the prevailing view of the police and other Interior Ministry forces, who are known for brutality and nicknamed “bultagia,” or thugs, by Egyptians.
Egypt’s military, with about 468,000 soldiers, is an institution apart, with its own social clubs and shopping centers. It has expanded over the decades into civilian areas like real estate development and engineering.
It has also provided a means of social advancement, where men from poor families can earn prestige and join the upper middle class. Mr. Mubarak has appointed retired generals to run most provinces and important state-run companies.
But deploying tanks is a sign of desperation, and raises the question of when the military might begin to doubt Mr. Mubarak’s viability. The tipping point could come, analysts believe, if the military is ordered to fire on demonstrators in any large numbers. It is one thing to protect government buildings from looters, but something else to tarnish the reputation of the army by killing citizens, they said.
“If the military fires on civilians after demonstrations that are clearly popular, that will imperil the standing of the military, its integrity,” said Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. “This time the institution’s future is at risk.”
So far, the military seems to be staying out of crowd control and limiting its role to protecting government buildings, embassies, and national treasures like the Pyramids at Giza. If the protests continue and the military doesn’t crackdown, it could be a sign that Mubarak is done.
Photo via BBC