Letter From Cairo

The People's Military in Egypt?

Courtesy Reuters

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

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