The Egyptian Army’s passivity in the bloody protests suggests an internal conflict of agendas, one which could inspire a coup by lower-level officers, a former Army Commander tells Channel 4 News.
The army rolled tanks into Cairo’s Tahrir Square last Friday – the epicentre of the country’s round-the-clock anti-Mubarak protests – which for over a week had largely been peaceful in nature until groups of people loyal to the President descended on the plaza.
Egypt’s military, which (including the air force) has 468,500 active members and 479,000 in the reserves, immediately announced it would not fire upon the citizenry, and gave widespread anti-Mubarak sentiment credence by branding the protests ‘legitimate.’
But when clashes between Mubarak antagonists and protagonists broke out on Wednesday, with at least five people dying in the process, the army were deliberate bystanders.
And despite some efforts on Thursday morning to keep the two sides apart, analysts have raised questions about the army’s agenda in what has now become a fully-fledged revolution.
Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan and member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, told Channel 4 News that the army’s inaction likely points to disagreement within the ranks.
“I suspect that the lower-level members of the Egyptian Army, probably at the colonel level, support (Egypt’s main opposition movement) the Muslim Brotherhood, and the higher echelons will be backing the current regime.” he said.
“So the fact that the army has taken no decisive physical action is probably down to the heads backing (Vice President) Omar Suleiman, with the lesser-ranking officers eyeing a alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The theory is given weight by the apparent incongruity of the army’s inertia during the process coming despite Mubarak, a former air force commander, naming Suleiman as Vice President, former air force commander Ahmed Shafik as Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tantawi, an army field marshal, to Deputy Prime Minister on 31 January.
The obvious question arises: why no intervention if the heads of the army and air force are now in Mubarak’s Cabinet?
Col. Kemp said the suggested schism within the ranks was reminiscent of the conditions which allowed one of Mubarak’s presidential predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to stage a military coup and overthrow the government in the 1952 revolution.
Nasser, himself a lower-level officer (Lieutenant-Colonel) in the Egyptian Army and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, overthrew King Farouk amid mass anti-British protests in Cairo.
Col. Kemp said the symmetry of circumstances between the internecine clashes in Tahrir Square currently and the popular uprising then point to a “strong possibility” of a pro-Muslim Brotherhood seizure of power by lower-ranking members of the army.
An eventuality, he added, which would have dire consequences.
“Such a move, which looks increasingly possible, could see the Muslim Brotherhood come to power, which would raise the prospect of Egypt fostering international terrorism. It would also have a knock-on effect for Gaza; without the support of the Egyptian Army there, the Israelis would feel compelled to re-enter Gaza.”
There is also the not-so-small matter of the $1.3 billion the military receives from the United States every year – roughly a third of its annual budget – which it will be intent on retaining.
However, plans could already be underfoot within the army to look at alternative sources of sponsorship if the Americans become unhappy with how the military is reacting to the uprising, especially now that Washington has publically called an immediate end to the violence.
“The American money is very important to them; they’re very conscious about how their actions will determine if that money stream continues” Col. Kemp said.
“But it shouldn’t be forgotten that there will be other offers of funding floating about: China, Iran, the usual suspects.”
So who is pulling the strings of the world’s 11th largest army: Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan or Suleiman?
“Well, that’s the point. I suspect within the military there are different agendas: it will be very interesting to see what happens now, but a coup d’état is a very real possibility.”