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Egypt's military caught between two sides

WASHINGTON — Even as pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo have riveted the world's attention for 17 days, the Egyptian military has managed the crisis with seeming finesse, winning over street protesters, quietly consolidating its domination of top government posts and sidelining potential rivals for leadership, notably President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal.

Then came Thursday, a roller coaster of a day on which the military at first appeared to be moving to usher Mubarak from the scene — and then watched with the world as Mubarak clung to his title.

The apparent standoff between the protest leaders and Mubarak, hours before major demonstrations set for Friday, could pose a new dilemma for military commanders. Suleiman called for an end to demonstrations, and Human Rights Watch said this week that some military units had been involved in detaining and abusing protesters. But by most accounts, army units deployed in Cairo and other cities have shown little appetite for using force to clear the streets.

Early Friday, Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, sent a message on Twitter saying: "Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now."

Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington research center, said the military was caught between Mubarak and the protesters, and that it was hard to predict how officers might react.


''For the first time, I think there's the possibility of a split in the military," said McGregor, author of "A Military History of Modern Egypt."

The military has been an anchor of Egypt's authoritarian government for nearly 60 years. It helped usher Mubarak, a former air force chief, into office after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. But under Mubarak's rule, its role in Egyptian politics has been reduced, with the separate domestic security services playing the role of political enforcer. Many top military officers have kept busy overseeing the military industries that represent an estimated 5 percent to 15 percent of the economy.

Now the military finds itself in an unfamiliar role, caught between swelling protests and civilian leaders who appear reluctant to cede real power.

Paul Sullivan, an expert on the Egyptian military at the National Defense University, said he had "never been more worried about Egypt and the region than now."

He said: "When you have hopes that are dashed, that's the most dangerous moment. All bets are off."

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