Army pledges to allow protests as Egyptians mass in Tahrir Square

In a move that seemed to embolden the opposition's 'million man march' on Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Army recognized 'the legitimacy of the people's demands.'

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak demonstrate in front of an Egyptian army checkpoint in Cairo on Feb. 1. Mubarak's grip on Egypt looked increasingly tenuous on Tuesday after the army pledged not to confront protesters who converged in Cairo in their tens of thousands to demand an end to his 30-year rule.

Egyptians stepped up their protests Tuesday against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, massing for what they billed as a “million man march” and confident in the Army’s promise not to stop them with force.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians converged toward Tahrir Square – epicenter of a week of protests – for what was expected to be the largest event yet in a week of dramatic protests. The military announced overnight Monday that it recognized “the legitimacy of the people’s demands,” and soldiers permitted rivers of people to gather.

The military “has not and will not use force against the public,” spokesman Ismail Etman said on state TV Monday night, adding, “the freedom of peaceful expression is guaranteed for everyone.”

The message from the top brass meant for Mr. Mubarak was that he could not count on the military to save three decades of rule. It emboldened the opposition, just as a White House envoy – former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner – arrived in Cairo to help facilitate an “orderly transition.”

“Today is a pivotal moment, for the opposition and for Egypt; the opposition is trying to flex its social muscle," says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. "The final nail was the military’s announcement that it would not use force against the Egyptian people. The momentum is against Mubarak … and it would be extremely unlikely that [Mubarak] would be able to survive such a convergence of pressures against him.”

The offer by the regime to engage the opposition, alongside the Army, may shape a different future, adds Mr. Gerges, though popular response is uncertain: “I would not underestimate what has emerged…. This is really the beginning of a new formula to resolve the political crisis in Egypt.”

Military gets warm reception

Protesters have given the Army a relatively warm reception ever since it deployed in Cairo and other Egyptian cities last Friday night. After four days of violent street clashes between widely despised riot police and plainclothes security agents that left at least 100 dead, the Army was welcomed with cheers and flowers.

Soldiers did little to prevent protesters climbing on their tanks, and scrawling antiregime graffiti all across them. Painted with words “Down with Mubarak” and “Down with the traitor,” these symbols of state power were transformed into billboards for regime change.

Analysts say the constant exposure of Egyptian soldiers to the noisy complaints of their compatriots – and to the energy and determination of the mass protests – is making the armed forces less capable of cracking down hard, if the order ever came.

“Whenever you have an army broken up in little fragmentary pieces like we’re seeing, spread all over the place, it immediately loses a certain amount of cohesion,” says Wayne White, a former State Department analyst now at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“These guys are getting tired. They’re not used to sitting in their tank or their [armored personnel carrier], day after day and night after night, out in a street,” says Mr. White. “They are cut-off from what they are normally used to … and when you add to that the distractions of living amongst large numbers of people … their willingness and their ability to act [at the unit level] is degrading.”

Shared grievances

Low-ranking soldiers almost certainly share many of the complaints of their fellow Egyptians. White learned that first-hand while working with young Egyptian officers as a member of the US Sinai Field Mission in 1978-1979.

Most of them “didn’t identify with the Army, and shared all the grievances that were floating around Cairo at the time – no matter who you talked to – whether it was a taxi driver, a shopkeeper,” recalls White. “I was hearing all the griping [from soldiers], just like in the general population, so why should it be any different now?”

“They don’t want to be out on the street,” adds White, regarding the Egyptian Army today. “Many of them have the same grievances as the people in the crowd, with families who are struggling, and [are] angry that Mubarak created this situation that put them on the street.”

IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

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