By Ashraf Khalil
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 30/01/2011
CAIRO, Egypt—After years of observing the increasingly toxic relationship between the Egyptian people and the country's police forces, I had no idea what to expect late Friday night as I approached Cairo's Tahrir Square on foot knowing that President Hosni Mubarak had deployed army tanks tof the city center.
What I found was entirely unexpected. The tanks and armored troop carriers were indeed out in force, clustered in Tahrir and parked in front of the burning shell of the former ruling party headquarters. But the protesters were happily scrambling onto the tanks to pose for cell phone pictures and chatting happily with the tank drivers. I watched as one patient tank commander made the universal sign for "wrap it up" to a couple of young protesters conducting an extended photo session.
The scene was much more tense scene down the corniche, a 10-minute walk from Tahrir, at the Ministry of Information, where another contingent of soldiers was fending off a crowd of about 800 persistent protesters trying to invade the building housing the state television and radio stations.
The crowd was desperate to break through, but a senior army officer stood in the center of the scrum and conducted a remarkably calm debate with the protesters. It ended with the officer and the most prominent protest leaders embracing and then backing down a little -- an exchange that would have been unthinkable with any senior police officer.
The protesters' views about the army were remarkably positive, given the circumstances. As one young man told me bluntly, "The soldiers are alright. The police are sons of bitches!"
This hatred of the police is only being fanned by recent reports that plainclothes officers have been brutalizing protesters across Cairo with clubs and knives -- perhaps in an organized effort to sow the sort of chaos that would serve as a justification for Mubarak to tighten his grip on power in the name of "stability." But by preventing acts of violence and mayhem, the army has earned a reputation as defending the essentially peaceful nature of the protests.
Whether this popularity will last is an open question. On Sunday evening, despite ongoing cooperation between the protesters and soldiers, there were already signs that the relationship is deteriorating. At one point, hundreds of protesters, perhaps alarmed by the significant military build-up in the streets, moved to block two new tanks from entering Tahrir.
The military may also be losing patience with the demonstrations. Just before the 4 p.m. curfew took effect -- a curfew that thousands continue to defy -- a pair of fighter jets made a series of low and aggressive passes over the square. If the intent of those teeth-rattling flybys was to intimidate the protesters, it backfired badly and only served to anger the crowd and plant seeds of doubt about the military's intentions.
Protesters and citizens are also keen to control looting and to downplay reports of chaos in the streets. They fear that if looting and rioting grow out of control, military commanders may decide that they need to stop protecting the protesters from the police and start protecting the country from the protesters.
The army's popularity became even more crucial on Saturday evening, when Mubarak -- having dissolved his entire cabinet the night before -- laid the groundwork for a new government bearing the unmistakable stamp of the military. Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a former army general, has now been made the new vice president -- the first in Mubarak's three decade-long reign. Minister of Civil Aviation Ahmed Shafiq, like Mubarak a former air force commander, is the new prime minister.
These new appointments are proof that Mubarak is well aware of the respect enjoyed by his armed forces. By stacking his new team with distinguished military figures, he's hoping that their reputation can paper over his own tattered legitimacy.
For the protesters, reforms to the existing regime seem no longer satisfactory; they are demanding a wholesale change to the Egyptian government. One protester in Tahrir told me, about 10 minutes after Mubarak's speech on Friday, "Have you heard anybody this week shouting ‘Down down with the Cabinet?'"
It's worth noting that not all of the protesters display the same level of trust toward the army. There was also a healthy share of animosity on display Friday night. As one tank moved into position outside the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, one man shouted, "We should welcome them. They stopped the violence."
Another responded, "Welcome them? We should beat them!"
As the situation evolves, one central question is which of these voices will find more support among the protest movement. Whether the army can maintain peace in the streets will play a pivotal role in determining the course of the revolt.
Even on Friday evening, when army tanks first deployed in the streets of Cairo, there were already scattered signs of friction. That night, I witnessed protesters openly berating and shoving soldiers -- who once again showed impressive patience. A few protesters behaved so aggressively toward the soldiers, without achieving a reaction, that I could only conclude the soldiers were under direct orders not to retaliate. But the longer the military is deployed in the streets, surrounded by hothead protesters, the greater the chances of the situation spiraling out of control.
If the military is unable to successfully preserve the status quo -- and it is unlikely they can -- the elevation of Shafiq and Suleiman also could smooth the path for Mubarak's departure. The majority of Egyptians will probably accept some sort of transitional military rule, but only if the emphasis is on "transitional."
However, such a scenario would be fraught with risks, and sure to anger many in the protest movement. Activist Kamal Farag, one of the movement's leaders, when I asked if he would accept a military takeover, nearly shouted, "No! We're not going to accept military rule. Fifty years of that is enough."
After the public awakening experienced by the Egyptian people, any transitional army-led government that dragged its feet before fresh elections would once again find thousands in the street -- and this time that mutual respect would be gone.
It's a logical strategy but it probably won't work. Much like his dismissal of the Cabinet the night before, Mubarak seems to be either deliberately missing the point or is unable to admit it to himself. From the perspective of the protesters, it doesn't matter who Mubarak places in the government. The problem, they believe, goes all the way to the top.