|Egyptian army soldiers on the street find their own mandate to be confusing [EPA]
Egypt’s army is likely to decide the fate of the pro-democracy protesters in Tahrir Square, and the short-term future of the country’s government – yet few Egyptians know what to expect, because the army’s objectives and orders remain unclear and sometimes contradictory.
Soldiers seem to have been tasked with crowd control near Tahrir Square, but the army has also stressed in several public statements that it will not fire on civilians. Thus, while the army deployed troops around Tahrir on Thursday – forming a protective ring around pro-democracy protesters – it was quickly forced to withdraw once heavy fighting picked up.
The next day, the defence minister – Mohammad Hussain Tantawi – paid a personal visit to Tahrir Square, meeting with soldiers stationed around it.
The army said on Friday that it would protect foreign journalists covering the rallies in Tahrir Square, even though military intelligence arrested dozens of reporters on Thursday.
Soldiers on the street say their own mandate is confusing.
“We’re supposed to protect the square, protect Tahrir Square,” said one Egyptian soldier on Friday, when the military cordoned off parts of downtown. “But the army needs to stay neutral, the army is from the people.”
The military has been a central pillar of the Egyptian state since 1952, when the “Free Officers” movement overthrew the monarchy. All four of Egypt’s post-revolutionary presidents were former military officers, and more than half of the country’s 29 governors have military backgrounds as well.
The military runs a wide variety of businesses – hotels, construction firms, factories – a portfolio which gives it control of a double-digit percentage of Egypt’s economy. That means billions of dollars in annual revenue, an economic base that has propelled some senior members of the army into the ranks of the Egyptian elite.
It is a deeply entrenched interest, in other words, a source of wealth for some officers and employment for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. The arrangement lasted for decades because the country’s political leadership is so closely linked to the armed forces.
“The military has been a primary beneficiary of this political order and have not had to intervene overtly in politics until now because the system worked relatively well under a brother officer,” said Steven Cook, an expert on Egypt at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.
And so the prospect of a civilian-led government has perhaps made the army uneasy.
Activists inside the square have attempted to co-opt the army, chanting slogans like “the army and the people are one” and applauding military vehicles as they drive by. But in private conversations, many of them acknowledge that the army’s motives are unclear.
“They [the army] will come out of this stronger,” said Mo’timun Mohammad Mahmoud, an activist in Tahrir Square.
The “council of wise men,” an impromptu group of prominent Egyptians – including Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa and business tycoon Naguib Sawiris – recommended that Suleiman preside over a transitional government. That would place a former army officer and intelligence chief in charge of the transition.
“There’s going to be a power struggle,” said an activist, Saeed, who has spent the last 11 days in Tahrir Square. “The military does not want to give up its power.”
Similar conversations take place on Cairo’s streets – at least the few streets still accessible to foreign journalists. In a coffeeshop in Cairo’s Agouza neighbourhood earlier this week, several men discussed whether the army was using these protests to push out the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, and his allies in the ruling National Democratic Party – all of them businessmen with no military background.
“Omar Suleiman is going to take charge,” said Amr, sipping a cup of tea on the morning after Mubarak’s televised address earlier this week. “But he’s old, he’ll spend a few years in office, then someone else from the army will take power.”
And it’s unclear whether the protesters in Tahrir Square would actually reject that outcome. Few of them have articulated a clear vision for a post-Mubarak Egypt, and the leaders of Egypt’s fragmented opposition movement have not agreed on a way forward.
Some activists say the military could be looking to stage a “soft coup” – consolidating its power behind the scenes, maintaining a tense calm downtown, and waiting for the pro-democracy protest movement to lose steam.
“They’re just playing for time,” said Mohammed Hassan in Tahrir Square on Friday, watching the crowd of soldiers lined up outside.