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The Egyptian army has so far acted with restraint, but has also yet to choose a side in the battle between the country's protesters and President Hosni Mubarak. Until they do, chaos and uncertainty will persist.

Cairo (Al Jazeera, via flickr)

There has been much speculation about whether the riots in Tunisia and Egypt have been the first Facebook and Twitter revolutions. In fact, these Internet-based social networks have allowed young protesters to interact and organize easily and have accelerated the dynamics of the revolutionary process. In the end, however, their success will depend on the answer to an age-old question: where does the military stand?

In Tunisia, military generals were quick to usher the reviled President Zine el-Abidine to the door. By quickly reining in the regime's security forces, they helped the country to avoid a long period of violent conflict. In Egypt, the army has been much more reserved. While the Egyptian people have jubilantly welcomed the soldiers into their cities, believing them to be on their side, the military has in fact been ambivalent and hesitant to act. They are not shooting demonstrators - that's left to the regime's internal security apparatus. But they are also not helping the demonstrators by joining the cause to remove President Hosni Mubarak from office.

Chaos and anarchy take over

This highlights a problem that many autocracies face. Such regimes usually make a great effort to bring their interests in line with those of the army. The generals are granted lucrative fiefdoms and, in Egypt the military has become an economic actor on its own, contributing not only to the defense industry but also to the construction, tourism and consumer goods sectors. The more the generals have to lose, the more likely they are to oppose change.

Because the military has yet to choose a side, chaos and anarchy are taking hold in the country. There are already some signs that security forces are contributing to this chaos, alongside criminal gangs and looters from the slums. The regime is calculating that the worse the situation becomes, the more likely citizens will be willing to let security forces take back control. In the meantime, however, they're taking matters into their own hands and trying to protect their neighborhoods.

It is unclear how long this intermediary phase will last. The regime hopes that the demonstrations will lose their intensity over time and that the situation will calm itself. But the more the cities break, the harder it will be for the military to remain passive. It's like the James Dean movie, "Rebel Without a Cause": both cars race towards the cliff's edge, each driver hoping that the other will bail out first. Hopefully this won't leave the whole country falling toward the abyss.

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