CAIRO, Egypt -- The Egyptian Army today called up thousands of military reservists as soldiers cleared Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the extraordinary revolution that has transformed Egypt and the political map of the Middle East.
The call-up appeared to be related to the army’s continuing need to maintain stability in the absence of the civilian police. Most of Egypt’s civilian police officers fled their posts on January 28 in the face of overwhelming numbers of protesters throughout Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Since then, military police in their traditional camouflage uniforms and red berets have been guarding the U.S. Embassy, government ministries, the state-run television center, and other strategic facilities throughout the country.
The call-up also reflects continuing political tensions in the country following the forced resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic ruler for almost 30 years. A western diplomat said that it was believed that former president Mubarak was still in his residence at the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. In Washington, Egypt’s ambassador said this morning in a television interview that Mubarak’s health was deteriorating, but western diplomats in Cairo said they had no independent information about the state of his current condition. Mubarak has flown twice in as many years to Germany for treatment of an undisclosed medical condition, which Egyptian sources have identified as stomach cancer.
Although former President Mubarak ceded power to the army, it remains unclear exactly what part the army will play in its role as the transitional government that Egyptians have demanded should lead to elections by September. There have been labor strikes across the country, including by the police, who demonstrated on Monday demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Myriad youthful opposition groups have been holding almost round-the-clock meetings to craft and present a unified statement of their demands for reform to the military.
A western diplomat said that senior army officers, including Secretary of Defense Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, had repeatedly indicated that the army has been acting in good faith and has assured foreign governments that it does not seek a long-term role in governing the country.
Diplomats, however, added that the military had still not disclosed when the three-decade-old emergency law granting the government the right to arrest and hold people without formal charges or judicial oversight would be lifted. On Saturday, the military government announced that it would abide by all treaties, apparently including its long-standing peace accord with Israel. On Sunday, it issued yet another communiqué announcing that it had suspended the constitution that has been structured to give Egypt’s president almost unlimited terms in office and authority and inhibits political opposition. It also dissolved Egypt’s parliament, whose elections last fall have been widely denounced by domestic and international critics as fraudulent.
In a recent meeting with western diplomats, the Egyptian military officials leading the country through an unchartered period of political transition are stressing that they do not want to govern Egypt indefinitely or, one diplomat suggested, be responsible for Egypt’s crushing problems. The officers, the diplomat said, have been stressing that “they are going to do what the people want,” the diplomat said.
Egyptians are required to serve two years in the army, and after their service, they are eligible to be called up on reserve duty for up to ten years, until the age of 30. Egypt’s almost 500,000-man army is the Middle East’s largest Arab army, as well as a widely respected and admired institution in Egypt. The army’s refusal to fire on protesters in Tahrir Square further enhanced the army’s image.
Meanwhile, a western diplomat said that Omar Suleiman, the former chief of intelligence whom Mubarak appointed as his vice president shortly before he was forced out of office, has been “retired” and has not been seen either in meetings with the opposition groups or among the army’s transitional government inner circle. But other senior Egyptians said that although he had no role at the moment, he was likely to have some role as the transition progressed.
The Egyptian Army owns a substantial number of companies in what was once the country’s highly state-controlled economy, which the Mubarak government began privatizing and liberalizing over the years. Though its investments and holdings are largely secret, it is said to own not just arms production facilities, but dairy, vegetable, and poultry farms, hotels, clubs, and even hospitals. In crises, it has baked bread to stave off hunger and lower food prices.