Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt’s Military Holds the Key

Egypt’s Military Holds the Key

Just about anyplace on earth when a government faces thousands of protesters throwing rocks, burning vehicles and calling for the President to resign, you might expect the arrival of the army with tanks and armored cars would be met with fear, anxiety and violence. But not in Egypt this week.

The military's respected and central role in Egyptian society resulted in a warm welcome by demonstrators. This shows that the armed forces is potentially a kingmaker in the current crisis.

How the Military behaves on the streets is going be critical. The big question will be: Can they maintain the order without antagonizing the public that they need?

The respect and warm feeling for the military in Egypt began in 1952, when they helped overthrow Egypt's ruling monarch. Its support for a constitutional democracy and its performance in various wars and battles earned it the admiration of many Egyptians.
Protester throwing fire bomb at police vehicle
Since all males between ages 18 and 30 must serve one to three years, according to the CIA World Factbook, almost every family in Egypt has some personal connection to the military. Of course, one of the military's biggest assets in the eyes of everyday Egyptians may be that it is not the widely reviled security force. The Egyptian police have been heavily criticized for torture and otherwise depriving citizens of their civil rights, including in its most recent 2009 Human Rights Report. The Police are held in great disdain by the Egyptians, for very good reason. They know that police forces have tortured literally thousands of people ... for almost any reason.

The hostility boiled over this week, when angry demonstrators burned and looted police stations. On Friday, there were reports of several deaths after police fought back citizens' attempts to take the Interior Ministry in Cairo, the security forces' headquarters. But, just blocks away, in Tahrir Square, it was a very different and far more festive scene: Joyous demonstrators gathered near troops and embraced them, sometimes literally. This showering of love for the military, which were deployed Friday to patrol the streets for the first time since the mid-1980s was repeated many times over throughout Egypt.

Protesters climbing on Armored Cars
Video footage from Cairo and Alexandria showed some protesters celebrating by scaling tanks, with no repercussions. Many of them smiled and shook hands with troops on patrol, with one soldier even cradling a baby and posing for a picture. In Alexandria, where at least 2,000 gathered in Raml Square on Saturday, protesters chanted, "The military and the people together will change the regime."

That said, these same demonstrators were demanding the overthrow of President Mubarak -- a former hero in the Air Force and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has largely surrounded himself politically with other veterans, including Saturday's appointment of Omar Suleiman (a former lieutenant general in the army) as vice president, the first time Mubarak has tapped someone for that role in his 30 years in power.

Experts aren't surprised Mubarak has moved to align himself with the military even more so, recognizing the armed forces' place in Egypt. Still, by doing so, he also created a quandary for the military: Do they back Mubarak, whom they report to? Or do they support the people, having largely been among them not long ago and wanting to preserve their reputation? Another very real question for the military is that with so many of the soldiers so closely connected with the general population (their families and friends) how far will military discipline take them if they are ordered to suppress the protesters? Remember how the Russian military during the breakup of the Soviet Union was called on the support the government and wound up on the side of the protesters.

Andrew Pierre, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he expects top military officials to remain loyal to the president. But the rank and file are a different story, especially if they are called on to beat back civilians. "They're military people for two years or so, and I don't know that they will be willing to shoot their brothers and sisters and families on the streets," Pierre said, adding that midlevel officers may be most torn and ultimately determine what happens.

Through the first five days of the crisis, the 450,000-strong armed forces appeared to trying to have it both ways: refraining from acting against demonstrators, but at the same time vowing to bring order. Still, even as it vowed to enforce a curfew from 4 p.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday, there were no signs of the military doing anything to the hundreds who roamed the streets in defiance.

Ultimately the military will have to decide where it stands: behind Mubarak or the protesters. And their decision may well determine Egypt's future.

The outcome in Egypt, whatever happens, will have a major impact on the region. Whoever emerges as President Hosni Mubarak’s successor, whether through the scheduled presidential elections, if they are allowed to be held fairly, or by Mubarak going into exile, or by a military coup, the future stability of Egyptian-Israeli relations as well as U.S.-Egypt ties will be at stake.

Live Long and Prosper....


kev said...

I don't think the governments chances will increase if they o take control over the population using the army.The main reason is that the army is composed of men that comes from protesters families. Should they go on the streets in armored cars and start shooting their brothers and sisters?

Gary said...

No, I do not believe at this point that the army is likely to start firing on protesters except in self defense (and that is equally unlikely). But the situation is volatile and truly unpredictable. It is impossible to say with any certainty what is going to happen.

Ted Leddy said...

It was just reported that the Egyptian military annouced that they would not use violence against the protesters. However your point remains valid. They are still going to have to make a choice between continued military rule and free and fair elections.

kev said...

No matter what, there is no way back.

Gary said...


I agree but it isn't going back that worries me. It is which way forward things will go....