Hosni Mubarak Names New Cabinet, but His Future Is in Military Hands

Article excerpt

The Egyptian military is now center stage in the battle between President Hosni Mubarak and the demonstrators demanding that he end his 30-year rule.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beefed up the military presence on the streets of the capital Monday, named a new cabinet, and had Al Jazeera's broadcasts from his country shut and a number of its journalists arrested.

President Mubarak is trying to head off a wave of protests that has threatened to sweep him from power. Democracy activists have called for a million-man March in Cairo Tuesday, in their bid to hasten the end of Mubarak's reign. But the key player - and perhaps the only one able to finesse the least violent transfer of power - is the military.

So far, the military has been greeted warmly by protesters and acted with restraint in turn, leading some to hope the military will withdraw support from Mubarak, as the Tunisian military did with that country's dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But the military has long been close to Mubarak, and also fears revolutionary upheaval.

It's a difficult balancing act.

"The military is very much center stage," says Maha Azzam, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London. "What we are witnessing on the level of rank-and- file in the military, they are being welcomed by people... [yet] in the upper echelons of the military, we're seeing continued support for the regime," says Dr. Azzam.

"Although preparations I believe are being made by the top brass for a - in quotes - 'respectable stepping down' or 'stepping aside' of Mr. Mubarak, the military are aware that... this is a time for change," says Azzam. "But I think they are also trying to protect themselves, and want to be very much part of the transition process.

Still pressing

Protesters have shown no sign of giving up on toppling the elderly leader, despite more than 100 deaths since Friday.

But events of the past few days have shocked Egyptians, not just in the scale of their own brazen protest but also in how quickly lawlessness and looting became an issue when the police were taken off the street. Many Egyptians say plain-clothes police officers were ordered to conduct the looting, to spread chaos, frighten the middle class, and discredit the uprising.

Young men mounted local protection squads to guard against armed gangs of looters.

Police began redeploying in Cairo and other cities on Monday, though not in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, which has been epicenter of the protests for tens of thousands of people. Reporting from a few miles away, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English (before the arrest of the channel's reporters) reported people "greeting the police as long-lost friends. …