February 04, 2011

How Long Can Mubarak Count On Egypt's Army?

By Richard Fontaine

Source: NPR

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk a little more about the military, which Lourdes mentioned. There was a moment yesterday in Tahrir Square that symbolized the difficult position of Egypt's military. Anti-Mubarak protestors were on one side of the square, Mubarak supporters were on the other side, and Egyptian troops were in the middle. At times during this crisis, the military has tried to keep the peace. At other times, it has remained out of the fray.

As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, the military may have to choose sides.

RACHEL MARTIN: Each side of this political standoff is looking to the Egyptian Army. Mubarak supporters want them to keep order. Anti-Mubarak protestors want the military to take their side. The military in Egypt is such an important institution that is has the power to tip the scales in either direction. And as each day brings new protests, the pressure on the military grows.

Mr. RICHARD FONTAINE (Senior Fellow, Center For A New American Security): Yeah. I think that the Army might crack at some point.

MARTIN: Richard Fontaine is a senior fellow with the Center For A New American Security.

Mr. FONTAINE: I wouldn't count out the possibility that at some point the Army basically calculates that Mubarak, or even Mubarak and Suleiman, will become too much of a liability and that they need to move toward the opposition and the protestors in order to save the institution or save the regime.

MARTIN: Suleiman is Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former intelligence chief who Mubarak recently named as his vice president. Mubarak has made the first move to keep the military close by appointing key military officials to top political jobs.

He named Ahmed Shafiq, a top Air Force commander, as his new prime minister, and field marshal Muhamad Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's top military officer, is now the deputy prime minister.

Anthony Cordesman is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and has worked with the Egyptian military for decades. He says these top commanders are politically tied to Mubarak.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): When you talk about these personalities, it's important to note that they and the senior command under them has a very mixed set of lines of loyalty, because all of them have been promoted by Mubarak.

MARTIN: But Cordesman says even these Mubarak allies may be pulled in different directions. Most of them he says are just professional commanders.

Mr. CORDESMAN: Whose primary loyalty is to the service - to the image of the service in the nation.

MARTIN: And there's another reason Mubarak may not be able to count on the military in the long run. That's because it's made up mostly of conscripts, which means virtually every Egyptian family is connected to someone who has served. So Egyptians feel almost an emotional connection to the military, and in particular, the Army - seen as the people's force. And Cordesman says especially in the middle ranks, it's a politically diverse force.

Mr. CORDESMAN: When you talk about these majors to colonels they inevitably are going to include some opponents to the regime, some Islamists, some people loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood.

MARTIN: Which means it's tough to predict just which direction the military writ large is likely to tip, and there's another possible fault line. Again, Richard Fontaine.

Mr. FONTAINE: There's been some suspicion among the senior leadership in the military, that there is a generational gap that if they push too hard, that the younger generation of military officers may not follow orders.

MARTIN: Many of those officers have been trained in American universities and military academies. The U.S. is hoping that investment, along with the more than a billion dollars a year it gives to Egypt in military aid, will pay off. Although some on Capitol Hill are now calling for the U.S. to withhold that aid unless Mubarak leaves immediately.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that's a bad move. He says cutting off aid is the one thing you can count on to unify the Egyptian military, not against Mubarak or the protestors, but against the U.S. government.

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  • Richard Fontaine

    President

    Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served as a Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow at CNAS from 2009-2012 and previously as fo...