It remains Egypt’s most powerful institution at this time of crisis. But will the army be a driving force behind change, as in Tunisia’s revolution? Or will it offer a lifeline to President Hosni Mubarak?
Soldiers have neglected to enforce a curfew and have often fraternised with protesters. In Egypt, the army is both popular and a cornerstone of the regime.
The Egyptian army, the 10th biggest in the world, is a force to be reckoned with. Comprising nearly 470,000 active personnel, it has even more reserves, backed up by formidable resources in the air, at sea and on the ground.
The military has been at the heart of power since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952. It has provided all four Egyptian presidents since then, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamists in 1981 and his successor, former Air Force Commander Hosni Mubarak.
After defeat by Israel in the Six-Day war of 1967, Egypt’s army restored its honour during the 1973 Yom Kippur offensive. That conflict ended in a ceasefire and a total shake-up in Cairo’s relations with Israel, marked by the Camp David accords for peace in September 1978.
In becoming the first Arab nation to recognise Israel, Egypt also became a key ally of the United States. Cairo benefits from around 1.3 billion dollars a year in US military aid, compared to the 250 million dollars in economic aid it receives from Washington.
With the fall of his regime looking imminent, President Mubarak has named his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, an ex-military man, Vice President. Yet Egyptians demanding change clearly have little desire to see Mubarak’s authoritarian rule replaced by a military line-up featuring his closest cronies.