First Published: 2011-02-04


Egypt's army holds the key but plays the sphinx


Egyptian military seen as taking wait-and-see stance amid continuous anti-Mubarak protests.


Middle East Online

By Christophe de Roquefeuil - CAIRO

Is it complicit in police brutality?

The wait-and-see stance of the Egyptian military is raising many questions, but underlining one fact: its role will be decisive regardless of how the ongoing turmoil will end.

Political analysts are scrambling to decipher its sphinx-like conduct. Is it complicit in police brutality? Prudent in the face of a fluid situation? Split at the top of its command structure? Just biding its time?

No lack of questions means "plenty of things are moving within the system and the army," said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister who is also deputy prime minister, personally waded into the unrest at Tahrir square on Friday, saying said he wanted to "inspect the situation" first-hand.

He did so a day after US Admiral Mike Mullen, chief of the US joint chiefs of staff, said he had been "reassured" by the Egyptian army's top brass that troops would not open fire on demonstrators.

And in a television interview with ABC News, Vice President Omar Suleiman insisted on Thursday that the Egyptian government would not use the army against its own people to break up the anti-Mubarak protests.

"We will not use any violence against them," he said. "We will ask them to go home but we will not push them to go home," said Suleiman.

Imad Gad of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo said the military, which is held in high esteem in Egypt, wanted to keep its options open and was waiting in the wings.

"The army -- meaning its headquarters staff, not the intelligence services -- does not want to give the impression of intervening, because it wants to take power," he said.

"It is waiting to be asked to do so, in order to be cast as the saviour."

Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, all the Egypt's presidents -- Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Mubarak, a former air force commander -- have come from the military.

The backbone of a regime to which it remains loyal, the army holds the respect of Egyptians on account of its traditional neutrality during moments of popular unrest and its leading role in the major Arab-Israeli wars.

For Tewfik Aclimandos, an Egypt specialist at the College de France in Paris, saw a number of potential scenarios.

"It could be a splitting of roles following the 'bad cop, good cop' model, with the police and the henchmen of the regime attacking demonstrators while the army gives a false image of neutrality," he said.

"The army does not know how to go about policing," he said.

The ambivalence of the military could be a reflection of indecision in its own leadership, Aclimandos added. "Although the top does not want to confront the population, it does not want to show the president the door either."

Then again, the army could be simply trying to "gain time" to negotiate an honorable exit for the 82-year-old president and set the conditions for a transition, he added.

Suleiman, a general named by Mubarak last week as his first-ever vice president, is well-liked by Americans and Israelis, but as former head of intelligence, he is very much a man of the Mubarak era.

The chief of staff, Sami Annan, in regular contact with his US counterparts in recent days, could emerge unscathed.

Then again, it could be the besuited prime minister, General Ahmed Shafiq, a former aviation minister, who reassures both the military and business establishment.

The key to which way the army will turn could well be in the hands of Washington and the $1.3 billion in military aid that it extends to Egypt every year, making it the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel.

The aid has "established a relationship ... of great strength" between the US and Egyptian military, Mullen told ABC News, describing the military aid as "an investment that's paid off over a long period of time."


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