A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Egyptian Army at Crunchtime

The Egyptian Army today issued a statement that includes the following:
The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.

While warning against acts of sabotage and terrorism, the Army statement reaffirmed that freedom of expression is everyone's right.

Coming as it does amid many rumors of an imminent crackdown — tanks blocking access to Midan Tahrir, concrete barricades going up — the Army seems to be trying to reassure the demonstrators. Of course, it isn't clear who is speaking for the Army from the reports so far.

It could, of course, be misreported, and indeed one can argue about its meaning, but it would appear to reassure Tahrir will not become Tienanmen.

And if that's the case, Husni Mubarak probably should start planning a graceful exit before he has a Ben Ali-style search for an airport that would let him land.

It isn't exactly "Communique Number One," the traditional announcement of a military coup, but it may someday be seen as the turning point of this crisis.

In the 1980s I dealt with the Egyptian Army quite a bit, and will have a lot more to say on the subject. For now, I'm struck by the fact that in most of the radio and press interviews I've done the past few days, I've been asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems to be the focus of many American reporters. The Army is by far the more important player, at least at this crunch moment, and perhaps the likely bridging institution for a transition of power.

And now such a scenario seems even more likely. The Army has chosen not too sully the high regard Egyptians have for it (and perhaps keeping $1.3 billion in US military aid was also a motive). The 35,000 Tunisian Armed Forces managed to midwife the departure of Ben Ali. Egypt's Armed Forces, some 450,000 strong and the world's tenth largest active force, were always critical to the outcome here. If this is really their position, things could move quickly now.

No comments: