Egypt's direction after the revolt against President Mubarak will be decided by the army's sense of empowerment, and by how they interpret their mission to protect the Egyptian people, observers say.
Egypt's popular and powerful army holds key to future
CAIRO // Egyptians send their sons to serve in the military, they drive on roads built by military engineers, and, chances are, they own a television or kitchen appliance made at military production plants.
When wheat prices shot up several years ago, army bakeries delivered cheap bread to millions of families, and when electricity supplies were strained last summer, the armed forces' power plants helped keep the lights on in major cities.
Now, Egypt's most respected institution is being called upon to set the course of the country's political future.
Caught between maintaining both its popular reputation and its links with the ruling regime, the army has so far tried to stay neutral. But top generals are being watched closely for signs that they will take sides to end the stand-off between the government and the protesters, one way or another.
And while the US has ramped up its diplomatic efforts to secure an immediate, orderly transition of power, Washington has refrained from using one of its main levers of pressure on Egypt, the US$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) in annual military aid the country spends on bolstering its long-time ally.
The White House has said that Washington will review its assistance to Egypt, but the Pentagon on Thursday made clear that there was no immediate change in the US position.
"There's a difference between halting the aid and reviewing it," a spokesman told reporters.
The Pentagon is closely monitoring events in Cairo and the conduct of the Egyptian army. The Pentagon spokesman said that so far, "we have seen them act professionally and with restraint".
White House officials told The Washington Post last week that in discussions with top Egyptian military officials they have emphasised that any new political order must preserve the military's position as the country's most respected institution.
But in Cairo, there are signs that anti-government demonstrators are becoming frustrated with soldiers' insistence on staying outside the fray. Every new day brings fresh doubts about the military's intentions.
Last week started with soldiers shaking hands and cheering along with protesters. But on Wednesday and Thursday, soldiers looked on passively as pro-regime thugs attacked protesters with rocks, clubs and guns.
The military waited until Friday to take a hands-on role in reducing the clashes.
Egypt's defence minister and top generals have visited the square, expressing appreciation for the protesters' right to assemble, but then in the same breath urged them to leave.
As a result, anti-government protesters could not count on the military to support their right to assemble, said Shadi el Hussaini on Thursday from the middle of Tahrir Square.
"I don't trust them or not trust them," he said of the soldiers who ringed the protesters in the square with heavy weaponry. "I don't know what they have in mind." Egyptian officials insist the army's failure to prevent the violence last week had stemmed from its traditional reluctance to restrict Egyptians' rights.
"What took place last night in Tahrir Square came as a result of the fact that the armed forces are used to the fact that they should not get involved or block demonstrators," the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, told state television on Thursday.
But protesters and some political analysts said the army's reluctance to get involved suggested the military would not commit to backing the protesters.
The army clearly did not side with protesters' demands for the immediate, forced resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, said Shadi Hamid, an Egyptian political expert and fellow at the Doha-based Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
"There was no reason to think the military would side explicitly with the people. The military is part of the regime — it was not a mistake that Mubarak appointed three military people to head his government," Mr Hamid said.
"People were wrong to hope or think that the military would be the people's saviour."
The military has also gained enormous power since January 28, when Egypt's police melted away and left the army in charge of all facets of the country's security, Mr Hamid said.
Protesters frequently point out that in theory the conscripted army exists to protect Egypt, not Mr Mubarak's regime. It has not been deployed en masse in the capital since bread riots in 1977.
But Mr Mubarak has developed strong economic ties between the regime and the military that could affect its decision-making in the current crisis, said Bruce Rutherford, a professor at Colgate University in the US and the author of a 2008 book about regime change in Egypt called Egypt after Mubarak.
"The regime has worked very assiduously to give the officer corps an economic interest in the continuation of the existing order by giving officers extensive perks as well as opportunities for well-paying jobs in military factories and public sector firms after retirement," he said.
Military factories last year churned out civilian goods, worth 2 billion Egyptian pounds (Dh1.25bn), including refrigerators, water filters and calculators, Sayed Mashaal, the minister of military production, boasted to local press last year.
Egypt's future will be decided by the army's sense of empowerment, and by how they interpret their mission to protect the Egyptian people, Mr Rutherford said.
"To a large degree, the outcome of the current crisis will be determined by how the military sees itself as an institution, and how individual soldiers see themselves."
Matthew Axelrod, a military analyst with the University of Penn and a former Middle East and North Africa specialist with the Pentagon, said the Egyptian military now was caught between conflicting interests.
"One is maintaining its credibility among the Egyptian people and defending them and the constitution, and the other is a closeness to the regime that has existed for decades."
He suggested, however, that any direct US pressure on the Egyptian army to take a clear position could backfire.
"I think there's an open line of [military-to-military] communication. I don't know if the US military is exerting negative pressure and I don't know if that would be effective."