The Egyptian Army = Question Mark

02/07/2011 05:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In attempting to convince Mubarak to leave the scene, Washington desperately wants to avoid further radicalization on the streets of Egypt and, above all, to ensure that the Egyptian Army remains unscathed. That interest, of course, coincides with the aim of Egypt's top brass.
The generals are intent on continuing to exercise power behind the scenes -- as they have for decades.

The announcement that the Army would refuse to take up arms against the people was part of that game plan. It undercut Mubarak and prevented him from attempting a bloody showdown that could have been disastrous -- for the people, and the army. In fact, the Egyptian military made that same announcement in 1977 when they were called in to quell riots after President Sadat announced cuts in basic food subsidies. The Army refused to intervene unless the subsidies were reestablished. Sadat restored the subsidies.

That doesn't mean that the Army would be willing to step aside for whatever the will of the people turns out to be. But, if they could be assured that they could remain the nation's guardian, as in Turkey, for instance, what are the political limits the Army would accept?

Of course, the Army is not monolithic. Its ranks are filled with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, drawn from the most humble levels of society. It has traditionally been the most important means of socializing the lower classes, inculcating them with a sense of pride and patriotism. Indeed, the 1971 Constitution says that the Egyptian Army shall "belong to the people." This sentiment was made dramatically clear by the iconic images of soldiers shaking hands and embracing the demonstrators, even allowing them to paint slogans on their battle tanks.

How then explain the fact that on Wednesday, February 2, in Cairo, organized bands of armed thugs were reportedly allowed to pass through military checkpoints to attack the anti-Mubarak crowds, while the military stood aside, and watched.

That tactic makes eminent sense from the point of view of generals determined to keep themselves from the abyss. Now that Mubarak has said he won't run for another term, the generals -- and Washington -- would like the people to return obediently to their homes. The military will oversee things now, thanks. Only a lot of the people won't go. They don't trust Mubarak. But, since the army doesn't want to endanger its own future by using bloody force at this point, let others do the dirty work. The military will keep its hands clean, and pretend it has no responsibility for the bloodshed.

So far, the tactic didn't work: tens of thousands of the people have refused to back down.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand how turning over power to Omar Suleiman, head of military intelligence, who reportedly presided over brutal interrogations himself, can be considered anything of a break with the shameful past.

The top military ranks have concerns other than just protecting their own institution. They're also worried about their own skins. They can never forget the lurid spectacle of Iranian generals being executed in the aftermath of Khomeini's revolution in Iran. Iran also demonstrated that a radical revolution also means a radically transformed military, with the traditional army shunted aside. (Egypt's generals have a constant reminder of that lesson nearby: The Shah is buried in a Cairo mosque.)

Under Mubarak, the top military ranks have also enjoyed a pampered existence in rambling developments such as Cairo's Nasr City, where officers are housed in spacious, subsidized condominiums. They enjoy other amenities the average Egyptian can only dream of, such as nurseries, schools and military consumer cooperatives featuring domestic and imported products at discount prices.

One of the most indulged divisions is the Egyptian Republican Guard, responsible for defending Cairo and key government institutions. They are under the control of the Minister of Defense. It is apparently the only significant military unit allowed in central Cairo, apart from the intelligence service's military branch. Its ranks are filled primarily by highly-trained, highly motivated volunteers rather than conscripts. They are rewarded with bonuses, new cars and subsidized housing.

The Guard was created originally in 1952 as a kind of Praetorian Guard by Nasser to protect the presidency. Do they still view that as their main mission today?

But we're not just talking about official perks. Many of Egypt's military brass are notoriously corrupt. It was military land, for instance, that was sold by the generals to finance some major urban developments near Cairo-with little if any accounting.

The military also presides over 16 sprawling factories that turn out not just weapons, but an array of domestic products from dishwashers to computers to medical diagnostic equipment. The military's farms also produce enough food to feed their ranks with plenty left over to sell to civilians.

The justification for all this non-military activity is that the army is just more efficient that civilians. But that's hard to prove since their operations are off the books. Many civilian businessmen complain that competing with the military is like trying to compete with the Mafia.

The U.S. also has a 1.3 billion dollar carrot dangling in front of the Egyptian Army. That annual American military aid to Egypt has allowed the Egyptian officers to get their hands on lots of nifty weapons -- as we've seen over the past few days in and over downtown Cairo.
The generals realize there is no way the U.S. will continue paying for those playthings if a new regime more hostile to the U.S. and/or Israel takes power in Cairo.

Will the generals be willing to forego that aid?

There has also reportedly been a surge recently of religious feeling among the ranks of the military themselves -- and their wives. Will they be willing to reconsider their traditional antipathy to the Moslem Brotherhood and more radical Islamic movements?

Tune in tomorrow.


This post originally appeared in Truth Dig.

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