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Whither the Egyptian Army?

The situation in Egypt has devolved to deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters wielding broken bottles, knives, clubs, swords, whips, and petrol bombs, and there are reports of automatic weapons fire being directed at the anti-government camp. Pro-Mubarak men charged anti-government protesters last night on horseback and camelback. Haaretz is reporting five dead so far and at least 800 injured.

But there’s more going on here on than a no-holds-barred counterrevolution. Eyewitness accounts in Tahrir Square describe large numbers of pro-Mubarak demonstrators arriving on trucks and simultaneously closing off the exits. That’s a tactical approach that suggests that they were riot police in civilian clothes.

But where was the army during all this?

The army has stated that it will not fire on anti-government protesters, and we’ve seen moving images of soldiers showing their solidarity with those protesters. It’s tempting to infer — particularly as the Egyptian army is an army of conscripts, not an army of volunteers — that the army is in the anti-government camp. But when the riot police stood down over the weekend and looting swept the streets, the army did not step in to protect citizens from rampant destruction of property, theft and rape. Now, too — with the protests descending into full-scale battle — the army is doing almost nothing other than urge the protesters to disperse for their own safety. What’s going on? Whose side are they on?

Don’t count them out of the regime’s corner just yet. Remember that Mubarak is the head of the Egyptian Air Force. He’s a military man, and he can think strategically. He appears to have used the riot police quite skillfully to engineer a choice between him and total chaos. He may be using the army just as cleverly. He wants to see his just-appointed VP, General Omar Suleiman, succeed him to the presidency. It’s very much in his interest to have the people clamoring for the army to intervene.

It’s impossible to know at this point whether the original decision by the army to hold its fire against the demonstrators was an order from on high or a contravention of them, but in either case, Mubarak is fully capable of exploiting it. Mubarak remembers — as we all should — that there are a lot more Egyptians than the thousands demonstrating against him in Tahrir Square. The army’s current inaction serves Mubarak’s purpose, since it reminds the rest of Egypt’s 80-million-strong population what instability looks like.

The X-factor remains whether or not the army will help Mubarak achieve his object, which is to keep himself in place until the next election and ensure Suleiman’s succession. The odds are high that the army will fall in line. If it were inclined to break the chain of command, tanks would probably already have stormed the presidential palace.