Egypt's military says it won't use force on 'our great people'

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 31, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Egyptian military vowed Monday not to use force against protesters ahead of a planned million-person protest set for Tuesday, buttressing what had been growing signs that the military wouldn't step in to ensure the survival of President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

The army statement called on demonstrators to show restraint and acknowledged the "legitimacy" of their complaints. It affirmed the army's support for "freedom of expression through peaceful means."

"The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and well-being. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people," the statement said.

It added, "Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."

Analysts said the statement could mark a watershed moment in the weeklong crisis.

"If they stick to it, then Mubarak has to go. That statement signals more pressure on Mubarak," said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University.

Speculation over where the army stands has swirled since the military was first dispatched to Egypt's cities Friday after a day of rioting left scores of people dead in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

Protesters and the army have coexisted peacefully since, with protesters spray-painting anti-Mubarak slogans on tanks and hoisting army officers on their shoulders. Some soldiers appeared to have joined the protests.

Analysts said the army's position reflected the military's long status as the face of Egyptian nationalism. The army's reluctance to crack down on the protests indicates that its leaders understand that keeping its revered status is more important than preserving the Mubarak government, the analysts said.

"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.

It was unclear how the army's statement would affect the actions of Egypt's hated security police, who responded with gunfire and tear gas to Friday's protests and whose facilities were targeted by mobs who set them on fire and then beat fleeing police as they tried to escape.

"Tomorrow is clearly shaping up to be a day of reckoning," Alterman said. "By proclaiming their intention to gather a million protesters, the activists are laying down a challenge to the government. Either it will be successful or not, and peaceful or not, and everything that follows will hinge on those outcomes."

Every president since Egypt won its independence from the British in 1952 has come from the military. Mubarak himself was the air force chief of staff during the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel. Mubarak's newly selected vice president, Omar Suleiman, is an army general and the head of Mubarak's intelligence agency, and the new prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, is a former commander of the 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 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 army is one of the few ways that Egyptian men can earn enough to get married and start their own families. They're 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 the narrative of 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 nation, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was part of that revolt and became the face of Arab nationalism. Over the past week of protests, Nasser's photo often could be seen held aloft by protesters.

Egyptians still voice pride at how the army handled itself in the Yom Kippur War. It performed far better than the Israelis expected in the early days of the war, and although it lost the final battle, it 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's 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 think that the Egyptian army's response is a reflection of its professionalism, saying that by allowing people to protest and not reacting violently, it's doing exactly the right thing.

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.

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