|Thousands of protesters called for the ouster of president Mubarak [AFP]
As the Egyptian government continues to crack down on massive protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, all eyes are on the security forces tasked with putting down the demonstrations.
Egypt has one of the largest and most powerful armed forces in the world, with nearly 1 million active and reserve personnel, three quarters of which belong to the army.
The army is widely respected by Egyptians given its role in another revolution: the overthrow of King Farouk I in 1952 and the founding of modern Egypt. Along with military intelligence, the armed forces are overseen by Egypt’s Ministry of Defence.
Under the purview of the Ministry of Interior are the riot police that have been clashing with protesters. Called the Central Security Force or Amn al-Markazi, they number 325,000.
The Interior Ministry also oversees other services, including "the General Directorate for State Security Investigations (also termed SSI, State Security Investigations Sector, or the SSIS, or Mubahath al-Dawla), which has a special counterterrorism role, including interrogations" and the police, according to authors Denis J. Sullivan and Kimberly Jones.
In their reference book on Egypt they write that policing public demonstrations and monitoring curfews are among the Central Security Force's tasks.
Human rights violations
The security agencies have often been criticised for human rights violations. There were demonstrations following the June 2010 death of Khaled Said by two plain-clothed police officers. The 28-year-old was allegedly tortured to death at the officers’ hands in the city of Alexandria.
Following Said's death, security forces allegedly pressured the family to drop a case against the police and prevented residents and human rights activists from holding demonstrations in protest.
In the past few days, human rights groups including Amnesty International have "condemned Egyptian security forces' disproportionate and unnecessary use of live rounds and lethal force against protesters". The riot police used tear gas and water cannons to dispel the crowds.
The organisation also denounced the arrest of at least 1,200 protesters, some of whom told Amnesty that they were beaten up in detention.
The army was not involved until Friday, when Mubarak ordered it to the streets to quell the protests. It received a warm welcome in some places, as protesters saw it as an intermediary between them and the police.
On Saturday, opposition leader Mohamed Elbaradei told Al Jazeera the army's actions will be key to what happens next.
"The Egyptian people always consider the army a source of pride, as friends, as part of society. I address this message to the Egyptian army: Yesterday's protests, which I participated in, were 100 per cent peaceful.
The violence came from the security forces. And naturally, in a protest that involves hundreds of thousands of people, there are those who take advantage of this," he said.
"The army, which I consider part of the people, must understand that if you want to restore peace and security, this regime must get out and they must respond to the wishes of the people - their wish for change now. If this doesn't happen, I expect the protests will continue and this period will continue."
Eyewitnesses in Cairo told Al Jazeera on Saturday that in some parts of the capital, including the upscale Maadi diplomatic area, there are no police or soldiers in sight.
They expressed concern that armed looters were threatening residents and stealing from homes.
"Where are the people who were shooting the protesters who weren't carrying any arms?" asked Muhammad Salah incredulously.
"And now they're leaving alone these people who do have guns".