The army may be decisive in the outcome of popular uprising in Egypt. And protesters try to convince them to hold their fire.
CAIRO - When the Egyptian army finds itself face to face with its own people, commanding a tank becomes something of a dubious honor. Standing on the turret of his enormous Abrams tank, a young Egyptian captain on Sunday night found himself an involuntary player in a historic movement; one in which the smallest error of judgment, the slightest incident, could spark a bloodbath or bring down a regime.
"We need to advance to Tahrir (Liberation) Square," the officer tries to explain to the crowd gathering in front of his armored tank. "The army with us!" the demonstrators shout back at him. In front of the iron gates of the National Museum, under the gaze of the ancient Egyptian granite statues placed around the garden, hundreds of people sit down in rows in front of the metal monster's tracks. The column of tanks rolling toward Tahrir Square is brought to a halt.
Other protestors shout slogans, shaking soldiers' hands, trying to convince them to come over to their side. "You're our brothers!" a young man cries out to an officer. "We have nothing against you!" the soldier responds. The captain remains calm and jumps down to the ground to give orders. The blocked tanks do not force the way. Their machine guns are not loaded and the heads of the cannons are covered.
Tensions go up a notch when two F-16 fighter planes fly low over the square, engines roaring, in a bid to rattle the demonstrators. "Mubarak's a coward! American stooge!" people yell, shaking their fists at the sky. On the ground, the soldiers remain patient. The Egyptian military seems to be keeping its cool, in a bid to avoid the worst-case scenario. But the political impasse remains.
Cairo is still in shock. Burning police vehicles at intersections, piles of garbage and broken windows testified to the violence of the clashes of the past days. In streets nearly empty of cars, a sight unseen in this congested capital city of 18 million, residents exchanged worried looks, alarmed by the sudden collapse of an omnipresent security and police apparatus. There is joy, but also fear in these faces amidst such an unprecedented situation. Nobody knows how this popular uprising will end. Will order be re-established or it is just a prelude to even greater change?
"I thought we'd be safe here," says a woman who lives with her cats in an apartment in downtown Cairo. "But the looters came. They broke windows. The men in the building are now organized to protect us. I've got out an old golf club that used to belong to my father, just in case," she says.
For now, Tahrir Square in central Cairo is the nerve center of the Egyptian uprising. It is there where everything is being played out. The police force has been absent from the streets since violent clashes on Friday. The last Egyptian institution left is the army. Over the weekend, it was sent onto the streets to maintain order.
Unaccustomed to this mission, the soldiers slowly took possession of the situation and reinforced their positions. Without aggression, but resolutely, the soldiers parked their vehicles in front of official buildings and set up roadblocks in the streets leading to the square.
Demonstrators are allowed onto the square but only after having been searched. In the square, the mood is relatively amicable with the army largely spared the criticism of the Mubarak regime.
But the military solution has its limits. The tanks may dissuade the looters from taking the still-functioning ministries with brute force, but can do little to convince the protesters to go home. For a government on the verge of collapse, the soldiers offer only two options: to fire or not to fire on the crowd. For now the second option has prevailed. The big unknown is how long this policy will remain in place. The Egyptian people respect the army. "The soldiers are our children, our brother and our fathers. They are on the side of the people!" is the opinion of most people gathered in Liberation Square.
"It's over for him"
But not everyone is quite so trusting. "No one can tell how this is going to go," says Nahriman, a young air hostess who has been present since the beginning of the demonstrations. "The soldiers aren't trained to make a distinction between orders, but simply to obey. I've got two cousins in the army and I'm sure they would fire on me if the order was given," she says.
For the most part spontaneous, unorganized, united only in their collective rejection of a long ossified regime incarnated by Mubarak, the crowds of protesters no longer have a clear idea of where to go from here.
"What is certain is that Mubarak's move to shift the blame onto his ministers by firing them has not worked," notes Hisham Kassem, a former columnist and now an independent analyst. "He is the one who is personally responsible for everything over the past 30 years. Today, people want to work, but most of all, they want to be treated with dignity. They've had enough of him, of his brutal and corrupt police state. His regime completely fell apart this weekend. It's over for him. His resignation, in my opinion, is days away. For the first time in my life, the scent of liberty is in the air."
But interestingly, the pro-democracy analyst Hisham Kassem has no confidence in a radical revolution. "In Egypt we completely lack the institutions necessary to one day build a democracy," he said. "Our hopes rest with Omar Suleiman (the newly appointed vice president and former head of the security service). People want first and foremost to restore law and order. We need a strong army and gradual reforms aiming to create a legal and judicial system worthy of its name. And for that, it means not pushing the military too far."
Read the original story in French