Updated at 8:20 a.m. on January 31.
There comes a moment in a revolution when the men with the guns and those in command of the state’s fearsome machinery of oppression decide to turn them on the crowds in the streets, or they stand down, risking the wrath of a dictator. And more often than not, that moment decides the matter.
Revolutions and popular revolts are the definition of unpredictable, but the weight of history and military culture suggests that when that moment comes, the Egyptian army will not fire in mass on its own people. For President Hosni Mubarak, who rose through the ranks of the Egyptian military before taking power, his understanding of the equities of his own army likely has brought cold comfort.
Tellingly, when street protests erupted last week against the 30-year rule of the Egyptian strongman, army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Enan was at the Pentagon for scheduled talks on security assistance and the two nations’ close military ties. After Enan cut short his visit and returned to Egypt, army tanks took to the streets of Cairo, in many cases protecting protesters from police batons and bullets. Army soldiers seemed largely to sympathize with the demonstrators, in some cases even transporting them on top of their tanks.
“The Egyptian army will try and avoid at all costs the moment when Mubarak or someone else orders them to turn their guns on their own people, and I think before it comes to that they will push Mubarak overboard,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ruling but Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in trying to salvage as much of the old regime as possible, he said, because a relatively wealthy and stable officer class has been a direct beneficiary of the status quo.
“As we saw with Tunisia, however, the protesters may not be satisfied just with Mubarak’s ouster, but even then I don’t believe the Egyptian military will get its hands dirty by massacring their own people,” said Cook. The military is filled with conscripts from the countryside who may not be willing to carry out such orders, he said, and in two previous instances when the Egyptian army took to the streets in a time of crisis in 1977 and 1986, it did so without major violence. “The Egyptian military has nurtured an image as the defenders of the Egyptian state,” said Cook. “And unlike the Algerian military, they have not shown a willingness to pulverize their own people in order to perpetuate the regime in power.”
Certainly modern Middle Eastern history is replete with examples of ruthless despots and military dictators willing to employ all the machinery of state repression to crush popular uprisings. In the case of Algeria, when it appeared that an Islamist party was poised to win an election in 1991, the Algerian army took control of government and in its crackdown on Islamist groups and insurgents sparked a civil war that cost more than 150,000 lives. That same year, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein employed attack helicopters to mow down crowds of protesters and kill thousands of Shiites in southern Iraq who rose up in the wake of the nation’s defeat in the Persian Gulf War. In 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian state security forces ruthlessly crushed the “Green Revolution” that arose in the wake of fraudulent elections, using indiscriminate violence on the street and mass arrests.
Besides a more professional military culture, however, several factors argue against the Egyptian military employing similar tactics. It has benefited from tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, for instance, that the Obama administration has clearly indicated would be put at risk by a violent crackdown. Military leaders have also reportedly been at odds with the 82-year-old Mubarak over his plans to transfer power to his son Gamal. Most importantly, by naming his intelligence chief and former general Omar Suleiman as vice president, and former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq as the new prime minister, Mubarak all but assured a new line of succession sure to please his last remaining constituency in Egypt. Whether a new set of military strongmen can countenance the democratic reforms demanded by tens of thousands of protesters remains to be seen.
Tawfik Hamid is chair of the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and an Egyptian. “If it comes to the moment when the Egyptian military is asked to really crackdown on protesters, I think the top tier of the officer corps will decide it would be much easier to simply dispose of Mubarak and then assume the mantle of heroes of the revolution for getting rid of the hated tyrant,” he said in an interview. “In that way they would probably attempt to preserve their own power to the extent possible.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misstated the name of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies's Study of Islamic Radicalism.