As the crowds were massing near the Nile on 28 January 2011 – four days into the insurrection which eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak – armoured personnel carriers suddenly appeared near the famous bronze lions of Qasr el-Nil bridge and raced off towards the city centre clashes.
Thousands of anti-government protesters roared ecstatically; their beloved military, they believed, had come to deliver them from the hated central security services.
The scene underlines the exalted position which the Egyptian army, despite a catalogue of mishaps, mistakes and outright abuses of power during the post-Mubarak transitional phase, still occupies in the minds of many.
Egypt’s generals lurched from crisis to crisis following the fall of Mubarak – from the controversy over “virginity tests” of detained female protesters to the prolific use of military courts to try civilians. Yet its reputation at street level remained intact.
Part of the reason is the role the military has played in defending Egypt from outside aggressors. During the October War against Israel in 1973, the nation’s generals launched what one historian called “one of the most memorable water crossings in the annals of warfare” – sending 100,000 troops across the Suez and routing the opposition. The territorial gains were later reversed, but the October War is still touted as a major victory in Egypt. As Tarek Osman notes in his book, Egypt On the Brink, the nation’s commanders have retained their “exceptional status – ahead of and superior to any other organisation in the country”.
The generals acted as guarantors of the 2011 revolt and last week they performed virtually the same role in depriving Mohamed Morsi of his presidency. Following yesterday’s massacre, defence chiefs held a press conference in which journalists were shown videos designed to absolve the military of blame – a sign of how the army under its young, dynamic US-educated leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi realise that it is no longer enough simply to take their reputation for granted.
Dr Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert, says the country is at “a moment of truth”. Either General Sisi will manage the transition too forcefully in a bid to counteract the Muslim Brotherhood, or he will step back as promised behind a civil administration, opening the possibility of allowing an Islamist resurgence. “The Brotherhood have got him in a real difficult position,” he said. Dr Springborg added that certain elements within the army are unhappy with General Sisi – a pious man who was courted by the Brotherhood before becoming Mohamed Morsi’s choice of army chief. Many officers believe he helped forge a military-Islamist alliance which has backfired, he said.
“There is a danger the military decides to go after the Brotherhood and crush it. In that case they might push General Sisi aside.”