The Role of the Military in the Egyptian Power Struggle

Tipping the Scales?

President Mubarak deployed the military to restore public order in Egypt. So far, however, soldiers have been acting with restraint and have even been given an enthusiastic welcome in some places. Loay Mudhoon analyses the role Egypt's military is playing in the ongoing power struggle

Egyptian soldiers in central Cairo (photo: AP)
Although it is not yet clear which way the military will move in Egypt's behind-the-scenes power struggle, relations between protesters and soldiers have thus far been calm and in some cases even cordial

​​Hosni Mubarak, former air force commander and the man still ultimately in charge of the armed forces, has ruled Egypt for 30 years under a state of emergency. Until the current popular uprising, the army was viewed as the key pillar sustaining Mubarak's power. But the unexpected vehemence of public anger has compelled the president not only to dissolve the country's clearly inadequate government, but also to appoint close allies to key positions.

On Saturday, 29 January he moved Omar Suleiman from his post as chief of the country's intelligence service and made him vice-president. He then made former air force commander and minister of civil aviation Ahmed Shafik Egypt's new prime minister.

Both men have more or less the same biographical links to the Egyptian armed forces. It would appear that the Egyptian army's time has come.

The guardian of the nation

But there are contradictory prognoses and speculation over exactly what kind of role the army is playing in the unrest, including one theory suggesting that the greatest influence on the military is currently being exerted from Washington. The key question is whether the army will remain loyal to the hated Mubarak, who now finds himself under increasing international pressure.

A police unit clashes with demonstrators in Cairo (photo: AP)
The Egyptian police force, which failed to restore calm and has not been seen on the streets for several days, is considered by many Egyptians to be corrupt

​​Talat Musallam, Egyptian ex-general and military analyst in Cairo, does not think it will. He perceives the army as the "guardian of the nation". Says Musallam: "The primary role of the Egyptian army is to secure public order and not to support specific political forces in any way. Recent events also make it quite clear that the armed forces are not following the orders of army command with any consistency. That's why I don't believe that they will support President Mubarak."

Army tanks have long been stationed in front of Cairo's most important public buildings, such as the television building on the banks of the Nile, the National Museum and the Presidential Palace. Army commanders are trying to prevent the country descending into total chaos and anarchy, following the failure of the unpopular police and security forces to contain the confusing and increasingly shambolic situation over the last few days. On Sunday, Egyptian army units were even deployed to parts of the tourist resort of Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea.

Good reputation

Contrary to the police force, which is widely seen as corrupt, the army enjoys a good reputation among most Egyptians. Most of the demonstrators initially welcomed the advancing military units in Cairo, and in some cases there were scenes of friendly exchange between young protesters and soldiers, with troops taking no action to prevent protesters daubing anti-Mubarak slogans on their tanks.

At this historic moment in time, political observers agree that the generals hold the key to Mubarak's fate. According to some analysts, a military-led interim government is now a viable option. But it is still difficult to evaluate what course of action the generals will eventually take, and to what extent Mubarak still holds sway over the army.

Egyptian ex-general Talat Musallam agrees that this is the great unknown: "It's very difficult to tell how the military commanders will conduct themselves, particularly as Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi has so far not taken any clear stance. Nor do we know anything of his relationship with President Mubarak at the current time."

Loay Mudhoon

© Deutsche Welle 2011

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/
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