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.

Mubarak's regime has sought to cultivate military loyalty through special privileges, such as economic benefits in the form of military-run business ventures. This system of mutual benefit has been a salve to the military, as Mubarak has steadily eroded their overt influence. Its loyalty will now be tested on the streets of Cairo and throughout Egypt. President Mubarak's tone-deaf presentation and half-hearted commitments to reform following his sacking of his ministers will not be the end of the country's political unrest. In fact, it might further enflame the situation, as protestors have become emboldened by the massive public displays of protest and enraged by the mounting casualties that their compatriots have sustained. Protests will continue, and both the protesters and the regime will watch the military carefully for its response.

In deciding how to handle their role at the center of Egypt's future, senior military leaders will likely focus on how to best protect and expand the institutional prerogatives and interests of the armed forces. If the military's senior leaders decide that Mubarak's ouster and a subsequent democratic transition would unacceptably risk reducing the military's political and cultural power, they will be more likely to defend the regime. But, for the military to defend Mubarak against the protesters, senior officers would have to believe that the current system of government is sustainable, even in the face of continuing protest and escalating violence. Tying their future to a crippled regime might in the end destroy their reputation and undermine their ability to maintain their position of privilege.

Or the military could follow the Tunisian model, interceding on behalf of the people, ousting the current regime, and overseeing what has been to date a fairly orderly transition. Such an approach would afford the military the opportunity to cement their role in Egyptian society on the basis of popular legitimacy while also providing them the space to protect the institutional interests of the armed forces.

As the direction of events in Egypt becomes clearer over the coming days, this calculus will guide the actions of the military and might provide Egypt and its allies a relatively attractive course of political transition. Unfortunately, getting to that point will likely mean the blood of innocent Egyptians.

Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty