The Battle for Cairo
Egypt’s Military Is Seen as Pivotal in Next Step
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, New York Times, January 28, 2011
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.
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