WASHINGTON — As unprecedented protests have led to national chaos in Egypt, the Egyptian army has taken no decisive action to end the conflict, leaving experts to wonder which of four possibilities are governing the army's actions.
Does the military sympathize with the protesters or is it just waiting for the right moment to intervene? Is it divided internally about the proper response or does it see itself not as the protector of President Hosni Mubarak's regime but of the Egyptian state?
"There doesn't seem to be a signal clear line that the military is taking," said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. "They haven't been ordered to do anything one way or the other. We are still in a freeze moment. Everyone understands the Mubarak regime has lost credibility. My guess is the army is deciding what it will do next."
As protests continued on Sunday, the army remained the bulwark of state legitimacy even as it coexisted peacefully with protesters who spray-painted anti-Mubarak slogans on tanks and hoisted army officers on their shoulders.
The Egyptian air force sent F-16 fighter jets over the protests in Cairos Tahrir Square, but some soldiers appeared to have joined the protests. Throughout Cairo, men armed with kitchen knives and sticks captured looters, then handed them to the army, confident the military would take care of the problem. The mere sight of soldiers on the streets elicited applause.
The army's position reflects the military's long status as the face of Egyptian nationalism. The army's seeming ambivalence toward the protests also may be an indication that its leaders understand that keeping its revered status is more important than preserving the Mubarak government.
"If you have to choose between defending the commander in chief or defending the role of the military in the state, who do you choose?" said Jon Alterman, the Middle East program director for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The military's conflict of interest in the present situation is clear. Top government officials are, for the most part, generals and former generals. Those who lead the army earned those jobs by either tacitly or overtly supporting the Mubarak regime.
Every president since Egypt won its independence from the British in 1952 has been from the military. Mubarak himself was the air force chief of staff during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Mubarak's newly selected vice president, Omar Suleiman, is an army general and head of Mubarak's intelligence agency, and the new prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, is the former commander of the Egyptian air force.
The Mubarak regime has called on the army before to pacify angry Egyptians, most recently to quell riots over a shortage of bread in 2008.
Yet the Egyptian army is a conscript force; which means that for many rank-and-file soldiers the protesters are family members whose quality of life has deteriorated under the Mubarak regime. That makes it difficult for generals to order their mid-rank soldiers to fire on the crowds, Beinin said.
Anthony Cordesman, another national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees.
"This is not a professional army. It is a professionally led conscript force. It is a force with ties outside the military," he said.
Joining the Egyptian army is one of the few jobs that allow Egyptian men to earn enough to get married and start their own families. They are likely to hold the same aspirations as the average Egyptian.
"My impression is that these are not politically polarized people," Cordesman said.
Much like the U.S. Army, the Egyptian army is deeply woven into narrative of both Egypt's history and its national pride.
The modern Egyptian army was founded by in the 1800s by a revolutionist, Mohammed Ali, who wanted Egypt to have a strong national defense so that it could split off from the Ottoman Empire. Egypt's independence in 1952 was a result of an army coup. Its first president as an independent state, Gamel Abdel Nasser, was part of that revolt and became the face of Arab nationalism. Over the past week of protests, Nasser's photo could often be seen held aloft by protesters.
And Egyptians still voice pride at how the army handled itself in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel. It performed far better than the Israelis expected in the early days of the war, and although it lost the final battle, the army earned Egypt respectability and the return of the Sinai.
The Egyptian army has even avoided charges of being too close to the Americans, though it accepts $1.3 billion in military aid annually and enjoys extraordinarily close ties to the Pentagon.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the army chief of staff, and 25 other officers were in Washington for a meeting of the Military Cooperation Committee, an Egyptian-U.S. body that is chaired by Anan and Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense Sandy Vershbow, when the protests began. Anan and the other officers left Friday afternoon.
Egypt receives weapons and training from the United States, and the U.S. is seen as largely responsible for the military's strength today.
U.S. officials told McClatchy that they believe the Egyptian army's response is a reflection of its professionalism, saying that by allowing people to protest and not reacting violently, it is doing exactly the right thing.
Ties are so close that on Sunday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke to Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the Egyptian minister of defense, and Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak about the situation in Egypt. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to his counterpart, Anan, for 10 minutes.
Egyptians are apt to embrace U.S. support, Beinin said, because it leads to a strong Egyptian defense. And as Cordesman explained, unlike their view of the government, Egyptians "do not see the army as a barrier to economic reform."
The end result is that the most influential — and diverse — power broker has threaded a thin line between its roles to the government and to the people, so far, at least.
"The army has behaved as well as it could under the circumstances," Beinin said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2010