Eyes are on the Egyptian military now. What will they do?

A week ago, it was said: Egypt is not Tunisia, and the Egyptian military is not the Tunisian military.

A week ago, that was surely true.

Today, it is not quite so obvious.

What will be true tomorrow?

It is true that the Egyptian military has a different history in its relationship with the state, than the history of the Tunisian military. The Egyptian military has been closely intertwined with the rest of the state. It has been considered very loyal to Mubarak.

But now the Egyptian military may be forced to confront a choice that it did not have to confront before: choosing between loyalty to Mubarak, and loyalty to the people.

Moreover, in a crucial development, protesters have been making a direct moral appeal to the military to choose loyalty to the people. The potency of this moral appeal is obvious. It is well-known in Egypt that people in Tunisia regard the Tunisian military as heroes of the revolution who intervened to stop the repression. The prospect of having that status in Egypt would be like a lifetime Academy Award.

Ha’aretz reports:

More than 100,000 Egyptians from all walks of life gathered on Saturday at the central square in Cairo, as military officers stationed in the area embraced the protesters, chanting “the army and the people are one – hand in hand.”

The military officers removed their helmets as they were hoisted up by the crowd in ecstasy. The masses gathered at the square singing, praying and chanting that they will not cease their protest until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigns.

On the ground, at least, it appears that such moral appeals have had dramatic effects on the relationship between the military and the police; the police had been the front line of Egyptian government efforts to repress the protests.

This dramatic footage from the English-language Daily News Egypt shows what happened this morning near Cairo’s Tahrir Square when three Egyptian military armored vehicles moved in between protesters and police, apparently to protect protesters from police fire.

Of course, what soldiers do on the ground is one thing. What the leadership of the military does is another.

However, there is now a real question about what kinds of orders from the government the Egyptian military can reliably be expected to execute.

The New York Times reported:

[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.

Furthermore, there is now some question about what the appointment by Mubarak of Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief, as vice president on Saturday really means. At first it appeared that this was a sign that Mubarak intended to try to cling to power. But now CNN‘s Ben Wedeman reports that:

a source familiar with the thinking of Egypt’s ruling party told him that the decision to appoint Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief, vice president on Saturday “may well be as a preparatory step for a transition of power, for the resignation of President Mubarak, and to ensure that there is somebody in control, that there is a system of transition of power from Mubarak to his vice president in the event, and this is very possible, that the president does in one form or another step down from power.”

Today, Senate Foreign Relations Chair John Kerry appeared to suggest that the U.S. should be talking to Mubarak about the possibility of stepping down:

Asked if Mubarak should step down in a bid to calm the growing protests, Kerry said it was not his place to say.

“I don’t know. I think you first have to sit down and have a discussion with him on the future of Egypt,” Kerry told the AP. “I’m not going to call for that in a newspaper, but we’ve got to have those conversations.”

Of course, even if Mubarak does step down, that does not mean the protesters will necessarily be appeased. Their slogan in the street has been, “Down Mubarak,” but their demands go further: free and fair elections. But the departure of Mubarak would certainly send a signal from the government that satisfying the protesters’ demand for clean elections is now on the table.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman