Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt: Army Loyalty to Mubarak Will be Crucial

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Army Loyalty to Mubarak Will be Crucial

By Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Jan 29, 2011 (IPS) - Columns of tanks and armoured personnel carriers moved in to take up position vacated by weary riot police on Friday night as Egypt’s embattled president attempted to restore order to his nation’s capital.

President Hosni Mubarak declared a dusk to dawn curfew in Cairo and other Egyptian cities where anti-government protests raged late into the night. This was the fourth consecutive day of nationwide demonstrations, and by some estimates, the most violent.

"The police beat everyone…women, children…everyone," said Hisham Souda, a 22-year-old university student with a bloodied shirt.

A thick haze of smoke and acrid tear gas filled the night air as the Egyptian capital came under curfew for the first time in over two decades. Fires raged at several government buildings including Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters, which protesters had set alight earlier in the day. Demonstrators also ransacked several police stations and torched abandoned security forces vehicles.

"The president had to call in the army to intervene and restore law and order. Security forces had clearly failed to contain the situation," says Moustafa Kamel El-Sayed, professor of political science at Cairo University.

Egyptian youth celebrated as dozens of police vans retreated from Cairo’s downtown core amid a barrage of stones and Molotov cocktails. But within minutes the army moved in, bringing a column of tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) down a flyover while helicopters buzzed overhead.

The sight of the mechanized armour sent some protesters running. But many cheered as the heavy vehicles inched their way through the throngs of protesters to secure the state television building and road leading to Tahrir Square, a major downtown intersection.

Older Egyptians who remember the bread riots of 1977, said the army’s arrival was a sign the regime had its back to the wall. Younger Egyptians, many having recently completed mandatory military service, seemed confident that the army was sympathetic to their cause, or at the very least would exercise more restraint than riot police.

Political analysts say the army represents an unknown quantity. Loyal to Mubarak, loved by the people, Egyptians watching events unfold on state television debated whether it would turn its guns on protesters. Or perhaps join them.

"The army has only occupied Cairo twice, once under president (Anwar) Sadat in 1977, and again during a mutiny by Central Security Forces in 1986," El- Sayed told IPS. "The decision to deploy the army shows the president still prefers a security solution to this problem."

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets since Jan. 25 to demand an end to Mubarak’s 30-year-rule. Protesters have been inspired and unified at the fall of former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled two weeks ago by a popular uprising.

Mubarak remains to fight. Speaking to state television, he accused "troublemakers" of "manufacturing chaos" and said a committee would be established to address protesters’ grievances.

"It seems the interpretation of the situation by the government is that young people demonstrated to ask for help to solve problems of unemployment and rising living costs, but certain people have exploited the situation to advance their political demands," explains El-Sayed. "To deal with this, the government is trying to isolate the political (agitators) before responding to socio-economic demands. But I think this strategy will take us nowhere."

The army’s presence in the capital appeared as a staged show of force, and demonstrators soon called the government’s bluff. Youth chatted with soldiers and clambered on top of idling tanks while their friends used mobile phone cameras to snap photos of them.

"They are decoration," joked one protester.

Army soldiers and vehicles, equipped with heavy weapons and live ammunition, appeared to have no means of engaging the protesters without using lethal force. Once deployed, soldiers watched on while riot police armed with batons and tear gas canisters re-entered the downtown core and chased out demonstrators.

"The army had been welcomed by the people, but there have been some incidents of army soldiers fighting with protesters. In some areas of the city they were very aggressive and we have reports from hospitals of people injured by bullets," a representative of Hisham Mubarak Legal Centre (HMLC) told IPS.

The local rights organization reported at least 28 people killed in clashes overnight, bringing the death toll to 35 since protests began Jan. 25. Hundreds of police and citizens have been wounded, and thousands of protesters detained by police.

HMLC said that a communications blackout has prevented rights groups from knowing the real figures.