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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egyptian Military is Siding With Demonstrators

Today marks the fifth day of the Egyptian uprising, and dictator Hosni Mubarak seems to be running out of options to quell the unrest. We all saw the pictures of the tumult from Friday, when the feared police attempted to violently disperse the thousands of people who took to the streets. The police used tear gas canisters, batons, rocks, water cannons, and in some cases even open fired on protesters as violence quickly escalated out of control.

But the riot police seemed to have largely failed to restore peace, and may have even fueled more anger towards the regime. Even as cell phone and internet services were cutoff and curfews were put in place, Egyptians are united like never before, setting fire to Mubarak’s ruling party headquarters, looting the Interior Ministry and state television headquarters, and setting fire to about half a dozen police stations and cars as well.

The feared police have now withdrawn from the streets to take positions around the Presidential Palace, as Mubarak tries a change of tact and has ordered the military to restore calm to the streets of Cairo. This is pretty much the last option the aging dictator has, and many see it as the last barrier between Egypt and democracy. But, two things remain unclear. One is what orders Mubarak will give the army, or has given the army with regards to the level of force that is acceptable to disperse the protests. But, more importantly, it remains unclear how the soldiers will respond to their orders, if they do respond at all.

It’s about 7:00 PM in Egypt right now, and so far the army hasn’t used violence to enforce the 4 PM curfew. News agencies are reporting many instances where the military appears to support the protesters more than the officials they are taking orders from. A soldier in Cairo reportedly addressed Egyptians with a bullhorn saying, “The army and the people will purify the country.” There was an announcement earlier Saturday saying that anybody out after curfew would be arrested, but the military is doing nothing to move the protesters out of the streets, and in some cases soldiers reportedly “smiled and shook hands with protesters and invited them up onto their tanks,” reported the Washington Post.

While the restraint could mean the military has sided with the protesters, it could also represent a new tactic by Mubarak. As the violent methods of suppression the police used largely fueled more unrest, the military is holding back on using force perhaps so protests will wither away as there doesn’t seem much to fight back against. It could also mean that Mubarak has lost control of the military, and if that’s the case then this drama will probably unravel quicker then we know it.

Further Reading:
NY Times: Egypt Protests Continue as Military Stands By

Washington Post: Cairo falls into near anarchy; army warns it will treat protesters as criminals

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