Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beefed up the military presence on the streets of the capital Monday, named a new cabinet, and had Al Jazeera's broadcasts from his country shut and a number of its journalists arrested.
President Mubarak is trying to head off a wave of protests that has threatened to sweep him from power. Democracy activists have called for a million-man March in Cairo Tuesday, in their bid to hasten the end of Mubarak's reign. But the key player – and perhaps the only one able to finesse the least violent transfer of power – is the military.
So far, the military has been greeted warmly by protesters and acted with restraint in turn, leading some to hope the military will withdraw support from Mubarak, as the Tunisian military did with that country's dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But the military has long been close to Mubarak, and also fears revolutionary upheaval.
It's a difficult balancing act.
“The military is very much center stage,” says Maha Azzam, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London. “What we are witnessing on the level of rank-and-file in the military, they are being welcomed by people… [yet] in the upper echelons of the military, we’re seeing continued support for the regime,” says Dr. Azzam.
“Although preparations I believe are being made by the top brass for a – in quotes – ‘respectable stepping down’ or ‘stepping aside’ of Mr. Mubarak, the military are aware that… this is a time for change,” says Azzam. “But I think they are also trying to protect themselves, and want to be very much part of the transition process.
Protesters have shown no sign of giving up on toppling the elderly leader, despite more than 100 deaths since Friday.
But events of the past few days have shocked Egyptians, not just in the scale of their own brazen protest but also in how quickly lawlessness and looting became an issue when the police were taken off the street. Many Egyptians say plain-clothes police officers were ordered to conduct the looting, to spread chaos, frighten the middle class, and discredit the uprising.
Young men mounted local protection squads to guard against armed gangs of looters.
Police began redeploying in Cairo and other cities on Monday, though not in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, which has been epicenter of the protests for tens of thousands of people. Reporting from a few miles away, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English (before the arrest of the channel's reporters) reported people “greeting the police as long-lost friends.” He witnessed a boy carrying tea to police, and a man who got out of his car and “kissed and hugged the policemen.”
And it has not been tension-free for the military. Al Jazeera reported overnight Sunday that there was “random gunfire nearby; some people in the square are blaming the Army for it, verbally confronting soldiers.”
Mubarak on Saturday appointed military intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to be vice president – the first time during 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, all of it under an official state of emergency, that the post has been filled.
Even Mubarak’s choice of a new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, has a military pedigree and is an Air Force officer, like the president. Protesters in Tahrir Square in defiance of a curfew say the changes aren’t enough, and that all vestiges of the ruling elite must go.
But making that happen will depend on the moves of the Egyptian military, which has been the prime beneficiary of tens of billions of dollars of US military and other aid. Mubarak has been a close US ally; the money is the result of the terms of the US-brokered Camp David peace accord that Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.
The Egyptian military has dominated political life since 1952; on Sunday afternoon the Air Force sought to intimidate protesters by using low-flying American-made jet fighters to repeatedly buzz the center of Cairo.
“Ultimately there has been a coterie of power around the regime, and interests from the military and business elites that are very entrenched,” says Azzam at Chatham House. “At the upper levels of the military, despite all the words about being protectors of the nation…their interests have been very closely allied with the regime.”
The military “may well be happy to get rid of Mr. Mubarak, but they want to make sure that their interests are maintained, so [don’t want] to antagonize the Egyptian population,” adds Azzam.
That dilemma was underscored by one banner held up by protesters, which read, “The Army must choose between Egypt and Mubarak,” according to the Associated Press.
Civilians like Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei have put themselves forward as potential transitional leaders. But it is the military that appeared to be holding the keys to the kind of “orderly transition to democracy” that Washington has called for in Egypt. Even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, long the most prominent group among a fractured opposition, recognized the role of the military.
Essam el-Erian, one Muslim Brotherhood leader, told an Egyptian TV channel on Sunday that the group was ready to have a dialogue with the military as “the protector of the nation,” according to the AP.