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Egypt's army holds the key but plays the sphinx

world Updated: Feb 04, 2011 20:01 IST
Egyptian military

The wait-and-see stance of the Egyptian military is raising many questions, but underlining one fact: its role will be decisive regardless of how the ongoing turmoil will end.

Political analysts are scrambling to decipher its sphinx-like conduct. Is it complicit in police brutality? Prudent in the face of a fluid situation? Split at the top of its command structure? Just biding its time?

No lack of questions means "plenty of things are moving within the system and the army," said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Field marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister who is also deputy prime minister, personally waded into the unrest at Tahrir square on Friday, saying said he wanted to "inspect the situation" first-hand.

He did so a day after US Admiral Mike Mullen, chief of the US joint chiefs of staff, said he had been "reassured" by the Egyptian army's top brass that troops would not open fire on demonstrators.

"The army -- meaning its headquarters staff, not the intelligence services -- does not want to give the impression of intervening, because it wants to take power," said Imad Gad of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"It is waiting to be asked to do so, in order to be cast as the saviour."

Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, all the Egypt's presidents -- Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Mubarak, a former air force commander -- have come from the military. The backbone of a regime to which it remains loyal, the army holds the respect of Egyptians on account of its traditional neutrality during moments of popular unrest and the legacy of the Arab-Israeli wars.

For Tewfik Aclimandos, an egyptologist at the College de France in Paris, saw a number of potential scenarios.

"It could be a splitting of roles following the 'bad cop, good cop' model, with the police and the henchmen of the regime attacking demonstrators while the army gives a false image of neutrality," he said.

"The army does not know how to go about policing," having neither the training nor the will to do so, he said, adding that it could prove hard to ask conscripts to open fire on civilians.

The ambivalence of the military could be a reflection of indecision in its own leadership as well as in the government, Aclimandos added.

"They are not getting instructions from the top because the top itself does not know what to do ... and although the top does not want to confront the population, it does not want to show the president the door either," he said.

Then again, the army could be simply trying to "gain time" to negotiate an honorable exit for the 82-year-old president and set the conditions for a transition, he added.

General Omar Suleiman, named by Mubarak last week as his first-ever vice president, is well-liked by Americans and Israelis, but as former head of intelligence, he is very much a man of the Mubarak era.

Young officers might prefer to play a larger role in a political transition, rather than stay in the shadows of an old guard so closely linked to a regime that has endured three decades.

The chief of staff, Sami Annan, in regular contact with his US counterparts in recent days, could emerge unscathed. Then again, it could be the besuited prime minister, general Ahmed Shafiq, a former aviation minister, who reassures both the military and business establishment.

The key to which way the army will turn could well be in the hands of the United States and the $1.3 billion in military aid that it extends to Egypt every year.