What Will The Egyptian Military Do?

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Egyptian soldiers in training / WikiMedia

When we published our dead-tree story last week on the steady hand the Egyptian military was playing in keeping things in line in a tumultuous time, we kept our fingers crossed. Those tanks could roll at any moment — against either the protesters, or the government. But they stood still, as they have for all 18 days of the protests so far.

How long can this neutrality continue? Well, no one I have spoken to inside the U.S. government knows, frankly. Their biggest concern is that ultimately the army will have to choose sides, or fracture along generational lines. We’ll see about that. For clues into the Egyptian military’s mindset, it’s worth highlighting some key points from a 2008 dispatch from the U.S. embassy in Cairo recently posted by WikiLeaks:

— A military career is no longer an attractive option for ambitious young people who aspire to join the new business elite instead.

— The sole criteria for promotion is loyalty, and that the MOD leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being “too competent” and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime

— Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council fire in August (refs A and B) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail.

— The military’s loss of some prestige is partly due to the disappearance of an imminent, external military threat following the 1979 Camp David Accords.

— While mid-level officers do not necessarily share their superiors’ fealty to the regime, the military’s built-in firewalls and communication breaks make it unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader.

All in all, a pretty astute cable, at least in hindsight.