Egyptian military’s uncertain role could decide Mubarak’s fate

(By Deutsche Welle) President Hosni Mubarak deployed the military to intimidate protestors. But it remains unclear whether the military will side with the regime or the uprising. Will Washington use its influence in Cairo to tip the scale?

As the protests in Egypt begin to look increasingly like a revolution, President Hosni Mubarak’s government has deployed the military to Cairo in a bid to intimidate a population now calling for his resignation. Where the military’s loyalty really lies is an open question that could decide the fate of Mubarak’s regime.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has called for calm and asked for the demands of the protestors to be addressed. Yet Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US military aid, second only to Israel. The Egyptian security apparatus is bankrolled by Washington to an annual sum of $1.3 billion (0.9 billion euros).

At least 38 Egyptians have already lost their lives in the violence. In response, the Obama administration has announced that future military aid to Cairo will be subject to how Mubarak’s regime treats the protestors. Will Washington use its influence to push Mubarak toward greater concessions?

Out in force

After five days of tangling with protestors in Cairo, the riot police have made way for the military. However, the Mubarak regime’s show of force has had little effect on the intensity of the uprising, which continued on Saturday despite a government imposed curfew. So far, the Egyptian military has shown restraint and not engaged the crowds.

Rainer Sollich, head of Deutsche Welle’s Arabic division, said the protestors initially welcomed the arrival of the military after violent clashes with police.

“They [protestors] were even writing slogans of solidarity and against Mubarak on the tanks,” Sollich said. “The military is very popular in Egypt because it was very helpful in certain situations of Egyptian history, for example when there were floods or not enough bread.”

But Sollich cautioned that Mubarak himself is a former air force officer who also has influence over the armed forces.

“In my opinion it’s not quite clear who’s ruling the military in this situation right now,” he said “Formally, it’s Mubarak. But Mubarak gave the order for the curfew last night and the military didn’t attack the demonstrators even though they were violating the curfew.”

Military brass pressuring Mubarak?

And according to Hebatallah Ismail-Hafez, a Deutsche Welle correspondent originally from Cairo, there is talk on the street that the upper echelons of the military are putting pressure on the Mubarak regime.

“There are strong rumors that the military, the upper officers, are in consultation with still President Hosni Mubarak, in which they are suggesting that an interim government should take power,” Ismail-Hafez said. “Naturally the question then is what will happen to Mubarak.”

Ismail-Hafez went on to say that the soldiers deployed in Cairo are likely to display restraint until the military’s high brass gives word about the Mubarak regime’s future.

Washington still cautious

Up to this point, Washington has approached the uprising in Egypt cautiously. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have urged Mubarak to take concrete steps toward reform. However, they have not made any direct statements about regime change.

“I think the US government is currently considering what kind of alternatives there are, whether there’s someone in the military or a civilian like Mohammed ElBaradei that they could support,” Ismail-Hafez said. “They are reacting very slowly, and it probably has to do with the fact that they are not sure how strong the Mubarak regime still is, whether or not he has back up plans to bring the situation under control.”

Mubarak has been a reliable US ally in a tumultuous region. He has kept Islamists in Egypt under wraps, facilitated negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and supported Washington’s efforts against Iran. In turn, Washington continues to reward Mubarak with billions in military aid, allowing him to maintain a firm grip on power. But as time passes and the protests intensify, Mubarak may become a liability to Washington and the aid could dry up.

According to Sollich, Obama’s clear yet restrained support of the protestors may signal a new posture.

“It’s the first step to show more clear solidarity with the democratic movement in Egypt,” he said. “It is difficult for every government in the West to distance themselves from existing governments who are partners.”

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