For a moment on Saturday afternoon, it seemed as though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had been ousted in a military coup. At approximately 1:30 PM, Al-Arabiya reported that a rift was developing between Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Mubarak, and many speculated that Tantawi had refused the president's orders for the military to fire at protesters in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Then, 40 minutes later, the crowd hoisted a uniformed colonel on its shoulders and started cheering, carrying him all the way to a tank stationed in front of the Egyptian Museum. The people started chanting, "Al-shaab wal-gaysh eed wahdah" -- "The people and the army are one hand" -- and some wiped away tears of joy. Soaking up the adulation, the colonel mounted the tank and raised his arms victoriously.

The protesters cheered ecstatically. Like excited tourists, they began climbing tanks, posing for pictures, and hugging soldiers. One couple handed over their infant, and the soldier responded like a seasoned politician, cradling the baby in his arms and kissing it on the cheek as cameras kept flashing. Before long, practically every tank in downtown Cairo had become a platform for protesters, and they stood, perhaps 20 at a time, on top of the tanks, holding posters and screaming anti-regime slogans. The soldiers, meanwhile, smiled but said little -- a brilliant move, since the crowds took it as proof that the army was on their side against Mubarak.

To be sure, there was, in fact, no coup -- the army was following Mubarak's orders. And if any rift between the military and Mubarak had emerged earlier in the day, Mubarak took important steps toward mending it when he appointed Omar Suleiman, a former general and security chief, as his vice president, and Ahmed Shafik, a former air chief of staff, as his prime minister. Yet many protesters still hoped that the military, seeing its immense popularity, would seize the moment, break with the regime, and oversee a political transition toward democracy.

But those hopes seem to be fading rather quickly among the protesters. Perhaps the best thing that the military has going for it is that it is -- emphatically -- not the police. The police, after all, have been the most frequent point of contact between the people and the regime, and they are famously corrupt and abusive. Operating under the Ministry of the Interior, the police include the Central Security Forces, who beat protesters all last week and blanketed Cairo in a cloud of tear gas on Friday; and State Security, which is responsible for monitoring and disrupting all political opposition activity through a vast system of informants. Meanwhile, to handle the messiest of anti-dissident jobs, the police frequently hire balpagiya -- literally, gangsters, who are paid by the police to mete out punishment without dirtying the government's hands.

It was thus hardly surprising when Friday's protests became as much about fighting the police as they were about deposing Mubarak. The police were Mubarak's first line of defense against his domestic opponents, and the protesters confronted them defiantly, pelting police officers with rocks, throwing tear gas canisters back in their direction, charging at them en masse, and setting their vehicles on fire. The withdrawal of the police by Friday evening seemed to signify victory. Indeed, protesters in Tahrir Square spray-painted "THE END" on an abandoned police transport vehicle.

In contrast, ordinary Egyptians have only minimal contact with the army. Their primary experience with it is in grade-school curricula and at national monuments that emphasize great military victories -- and, in particular, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which Egyptians view, rather inaccurately, as a great military success against Israel. The army is thus portrayed as a proud, patriotic institution that is always on the side of the people. Even the most ardent anti-regime protesters endorse this grandiose view of the military.

"The army is the symbol of our country," one protester said. "They are leaders for us. Everything that has to do with the army is good for us. They always attack the enemies. They are the enemies of our enemies." A member of the liberal Ghad party put it more succinctly. "It's our army," he said.

Yet beyond its storied history, the army's quasi-mythic status within Egyptian society can be explained by severe government restrictions on criticizing it. The army, after all, is the backbone of the regime, and attacking it is as forbidden as attacking Mubarak himself. In turn, opposition groups have been prevented from examining army budgets, inquiring about military-owned business enterprises, investigating corrupt officer land sales, and even second-guessing military strategy. And most ironically, the government institutions responsible for enforcing these prohibitions have been the police and State Security, which hound opposition newspaper editors and can threaten all kinds of retribution if this "redline" is crossed.

In other words, the police state that the protesters so furiously decry has nearly been the first line of defense for Egypt's military regime. So there is good reason to believe that, with the police state having been peeled away, the military will emerge as a target of criticism.

To some extent, this is already happening. For many protesters, the selection of Suleiman as vice president served as a quick reminder that the military is as foundational to the regime as the much-hated police forces. As one protester in Tahrir Square said, Suleiman is "a man of the army, a man of the regime, and a man of the system" and therefore unacceptable to a movement that seeks political change. Another protester said that he opposed Suleiman, in part because he wanted "someone from civil society and not the army."

But the real challenge to the army's popularity came yesterday, when it began repeatedly flying F-16 fighter jets and military helicopters over Tahrir Square, in an apparent effort to disperse the crowds as a 4:00 PM curfew loomed. The protesters did not take kindly to this and started screaming in dismay. "He is doing this to threaten us," one protester said, referring to Mubarak. "They're freaking us out!" another exclaimed.

As sonic booms continued to reverberate in the protesters' ears, the pro-military chants ceased entirely. And suddenly, a classic Middle Eastern revolutionary slogan made its somewhat predictable return: "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!" "When I pray, I say, 'Allahu Akbar,'" a protester explained. "It means that I have one God. It means that God is greater than the president."

Just like that, the army had become another face of the regime rather than its alternative. And as two F-16s continued to circle menacingly over Tahrir Square, emitting sonic booms every 30 seconds or so, the people looked to the sky defiantly. "Hua yemshi, mish hanemshi," they said. "He will go, we won't." Just as they once defied Mubarak's police, they were now defying Mubarak's military.

The longer that the military serves as the primary enforcer of Mubarak's strict curfews, the faster its goodwill will evaporate. And this could have serious repercussions for its ability to control the politics of any transition. Rather than looking to the military, people may look to civilian leaders, such as Mohamed El Baradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency director, and Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary-general, among other possibilities.

Many protesters are already heading in that direction. "I agree that the protesters and soldiers are brothers," said Mahmoud Diab, the chief of the Cairo Lawyers Syndicate, a major locus of opposition activity. "That doesn't mean that we agree that the rules and the system are directed by soldiers. The people should choose a committee of intellectuals to make a constitution that gives the authority to the people and not the president, regime, or government."

Luckily for the military, its moment as Mubarak's domestic enforcer may soon be ending. Today, the police returned to the streets -- except in Tahrir Square, which the army will continue to patrol. The situation in Egypt is extremely fluid, and the military's popularity -- like that of other figures and institutions -- is bound to swing wildly in the coming days and weeks. There's no way to know what direction the army will take going forward, but for now, it is standing with the regime. And the protesters are beginning to resent it.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ERIC TRAGER is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Cairo in 2006-7.
  • More By Eric Trager