I interviewed Elliott Abrams, an Egypt expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, about Al-Jazeera’s reports that the protesters greeted the military with celebrations, and that the military might in turn side against Mubarak. Here’s what he said:
The difference between military and the police, is that the police are constantly being used for 30 years now to suppress the people. It’s the police who are constantly in small confrontations with the citizens. When it comes to freedom of expression or freedom of assembly it’s the police. The army is very popular, a heroic institution that fought the Israelis, and the army led the revolution in ‘52 and ‘53, so the army has a very different relationship with the people than with the police force. It is not true that the army hated Mubarak; he was in the air force and has always had a close relationship with the leadership.
But what about the people who are privates and sergeants, etc.? That’s the real question. The regimes always take very good care of the generals. But normally the people at the bottom live in poverty, they don’t have officers’ clubs or any of that. So the question is, when the moment comes when either the crowd is going to overwhelm you, or you shoot — what are you going to do? It’s a question about the people on the bottom; will they actually shoot, will they follow the orders? And will the people at the top actually give the order? In Tunisia the answer was no. Well Mubarak is 82 — what kind of future are you going to have if the army shoots at people? I don’t think we know yet.
The question now hinges on the crowds and the degree of confrontation. In all of these regimes – there’s no precedent. It hasn’t happened in these countries. It is reasonable to think that either the soldiers themselves won’t do it, or the generals won’t give the orders.