Even as the military-in-suits are being given positions in Mubarak’s newly-appointed government, there are signs that the troops and street-level commanders are willing to demonstrate their allegiance with the Egyptian people.
The New York Times reports:
[Mubarak’s] grip on power was further challenged Saturday as the military that he had deployed to take back control of the streets showed few signs of suppressing the unrest, and in several cases the army took the side of the protesters in the capital and the northern port city of Alexandria.
In the most striking instance, members of the army joined with a crowd of thousands of protesters in a pitched battle against Egyptian security police officers defending the Interior Ministry on Saturday afternoon.
Protesters crouched behind armored trucks as they advanced on the ministry building, hurling rocks and a few Molotov cocktails and setting abandoned cars on fire. But the soldiers providing cover for the advancing protesters refused their pleas to open fire on the security police, while the police defending the ministry battered the protesters with tear gas, buckshot and rubber bullets. There were pools of blood in the streets as protesters carried a number of wounded back out of their ranks.
In other parts of the capital, soldiers invited protesters to climb aboard their armored personnel carriers to have their pictures taken, and in Alexandria, demonstrators took tea to troops.
Michael Wahid Hanna puts the role of the military in historical context:
On July 23, 1952, a small group of Egyptian military officers, later dubbed the “Free Officers,” took advantage of simmering popular resentments against the ineffectual King Farouk and the lingering British colonial presence to seize power. The military-backed regime they installed on that day has remained in power, in one form or another, ever since. The fate of the successor to that regime — President Hosni Mubarak — now hangs in the balance, to be determined by a different but still-powerful group of military officers. With Mubarak’s decision to retrench in the face of the unprecedented political demonstrations throughout the country, he must now rely on the military and its willingness to suppress the tens of thousands Egyptians still in the streets.
When armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers began making their way into the heart of Cairo and other cities in Egypt on Friday January 28th, they were greeted with receptivity by protestors, who saw in the much-respected military a potential ally in their uprising against the regime. No doubt, the recent experience in Tunisia, where the military stepped in resoundingly on the side of the demonstrations and hastened the fall of the repressive regime of President Ben Ali, was fresh in their mind. The Tunisian military had intervened against the police forces, burnishing their image as popular heroes who shared the patriotic concerns of the brave Tunisians who defied the regime. The scenes that unfolded in Egypt made clear that the protestors there hoped to force a similar split between the security forces, run by the Ministry of the Interior, and the military.
While Egypt’s military is no longer an active fighting force, it still retains more credibility as a public entity than Egypt’s civilian institutions, crippled after years of neglect and one-man rule. In recent years, even some democracy activists, despondent from years of state repression and ineffectual organizing, have seen the military as the last hope for Egyptians against Mubarak’s efforts to orchestrate his son, Gamal, as successor to the presidency. Now that demonstrators have overwhelmed the police forces and built popular momentum, the military, were it to shift its allegiance from Mubarak to the protesters, could effectively end the regime.
Despite the scenes that played out in Egypt after the military’s deployment yesterday, with the military exercising restraint from violence and engaging in occasional fraternization with protesters, the military’s ultimate intentions remain a mystery.