Will Egypt's Military Officers Free the Revolution?

With Mubarak and protesters refusing to budge, the armed forces could decide the country's fate

On July 23, 1952, a small group of Egyptian military officers, later dubbed the "Free Officers," took advantage of simmering popular resentments against the ineffectual King Farouk and the lingering British colonial presence to seize power. The military-backed regime they installed on that day has remained in power, in one form or another, ever since. The fate of the successor to that regime -- President Hosni Mubarak -- now hangs in the balance, to be determined by a different but still-powerful group of military officers. With Mubarak's decision to retrench in the face of the unprecedented political demonstrations throughout the country, he must now rely on the military and its willingness to suppress the tens of thousands Egyptians still in the streets.

When armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers began making their way into the heart of Cairo and other cities in Egypt on Friday January 28th, they were greeted with receptivity by protestors, who saw in the much-respected military a potential ally in their uprising against the regime. No doubt, the recent experience in Tunisia, where the military stepped in resoundingly on the side of the demonstrations and hastened the fall of the repressive regime of President Ben Ali, was fresh in their mind. The Tunisian military had intervened against the police forces, burnishing their image as popular heroes who shared the patriotic concerns of the brave Tunisians who defied the regime. The scenes that unfolded in Egypt made clear that the protestors there hoped to force a similar split between the security forces, run by the Ministry of the Interior, and the military.

While Egypt's military is no longer an active fighting force, it still retains more credibility as a public entity than Egypt's civilian institutions, crippled after years of neglect and one-man rule. In recent years, even some democracy activists, despondent from years of state repression and ineffectual organizing, have seen the military as the last hope for Egyptians against Mubarak's efforts to orchestrate his son, Gamal, as successor to the presidency. Now that demonstrators have overwhelmed the police forces and built popular momentum, the military, were it to shift its allegiance from Mubarak to the protesters, could effectively end the regime.

Despite the scenes that played out in Egypt after the military's deployment yesterday, with the military exercising restraint from violence and engaging in occasional fraternization with protesters, the military's ultimate intentions remain a mystery.This is all the more so following the Egyptian president's truculent response to his people. Was their deployment the first step toward a military-initiated ouster of Mubarak or an effort to crush dissent? The military played a central role in Friday's events and could be even more important in the coming days, surpassing the more circumscribed role that it has come to occupy within the Egyptian state. The military's day-to-day involvement in political affairs has decreased steadily since the days of Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser, from 1956 to 1970, when Nasser's government was dominated by military figures. Under Mubarak, who took office following the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, this influence has decreased, aided by the regimes efforts to limit the public profiles of military leaders. Nonetheless, the military remained the silent guarantor of regime stability and has twice been deployed to repress significant political turmoil: in 1977, following the outbreak of "bread riots" over Sadat's decision to cut food subsidies; and in 1986, when a group of central security forces rioted and looted throughout Cairo, demanding increased pay. As memories of these events have receded, many Egyptians and outside analysts have wondered about the military's actual influence and what role it might play if again faced with a challenge to the regime.

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Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation, where he focuses on international security, human rights, post-conflict justice, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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