The tide is changing for the army

When the uprising began in Egypt and tanks deployed on the streets on January 28, the military was initially welcomed. Perhaps many thought it had carried out a coup against Mubarak (in fact it probably partially has), and many more still cherished the myth of the Egyptian army triumphant in 1973 after the defeat of 1967. Things began to turn last week when the army stood and did nothing while pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the crowd in Tahrir. The protestors issued an ultimatum to the army to pick its side: with them, or with Mubarak. The army has still done nothing. Then, over the weekend, military police (and probably military intelligence) were deployed to beef up security on the streets. It then came out that they have been arresting dozens if not hundreds of people, and began raiding the offices of human rights activists and visiting the homes of people asking to poke around their computers.

The Guardian has two important stories on this today. One is a personal account by one of their correspondent, Robert Tait, about torture taking place in the last few days. The other is a straight news story citing human rights activists about this growing campaign carried out by the military:

The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian.

The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart. But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.

The Guardian has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organised campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

Word of this is going to spread and will begin to counter the dominant narrative in Egyptian media about the people and the army being one. The longer this crisis persists, the more difficult for the army to continue either playing a double game or sitting on the fence. With Omar Suleiman's threats of coups and the protests spreading to work stoppages across the country, decision time will be coming for the protestors to make up their minds about the army (or launch a more pronounced campaign to persuade commanders), for the army's leadership to decide how it will proceed in a context where it is losing control, and for rank-and-file in the military to decide where they stand in all this.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.