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Perilous choices for Egypt's military

By Jon Alterman, Special to CNN
Egyptian soldiers drive an armored personel carrier slowly through a crowd of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday.
Egyptian soldiers drive an armored personel carrier slowly through a crowd of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday.
  • Jon Alterman says Egypt's government is a military government
  • He says military enjoys a privileged role in the society and economy
  • Egypt's military must decide whether backing Mubarak is worth the potential cost, he says
  • Alterman: Military is only institution that is still viewed as legitimate

Editor's note: Jon Alterman is director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He formerly served as a member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State and as a special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He is the author or co-author of four books on the Middle East and the editor of two others.

Washington (CNN) -- Egypt's government is not just Hosni Mubarak's government, it is a military government. Generals and former generals control much of the government, and many are influential in business.

Since the military overthrew Egypt's monarchy in 1952, senior military officers have constituted Egypt's new aristocracy, holding on to positions of privilege from the socialist 1950s and 1960s to the capitalist present.

Mubarak is, of course, a former air force chief of staff who led Egypt's air campaign in the country's 1973 war against Israel -- a war that Egyptians remember as their country's greatest military triumph. He has a military bearing, a military distrust of disorder, and a military attachment to hierarchy.

His new vice president, Omar Suleiman, is a product of the country's internal security service, and he shares the president's bearing and his attitudes. Two-thirds of the country's governors are former generals, as are many of the country's Cabinet members -- especially those in noneconomic positions. They are still generals, but they are generals in suits.

When things have needed to be done in Egypt, from alleviating a bread shortage in 2008 to providing relief supplies to Upper Egypt after floods in 1994, Mubarak has turned to the military. He trusts the military, he understands the military, and the military delivers for him.

Egyptians see the military as the national bulwark, an object of veneration and an outlet for their patriotism.
--Jon Alterman
Mubarak's rise to power
Fareed Zakaria's take on Egypt
Security meeting in Alexandria, Egypt

The relationship has been mutually advantageous. When Egypt began privatizing its public sector businesses in the 1990s, former generals were able to swoop in and get bargains, often financing their purchases with loans from state-owned banks at attractive rates.

As censorship in Egypt has dwindled in recent years, the military has remained beyond scrutiny. While journalists criticize the government, the president's family and even the president himself -- something unthinkable 20 years ago -- the military has remained sacrosanct, a curious void in an increasingly lively press.

Journalists report on a wide range of government operations, but they are silent on a huge range of issues, from the size of the military budget to the activities of the army-owned factories that produce everything from munitions to food and clothing.

And yet, the military remains a respected institution in Egypt. Egyptians see the military as the national bulwark, an object of veneration and an outlet for their patriotism. There is deep respect for the sacrifices the military has made and gratitude for the wars it has fought.

The Egyptian public's attitudes toward the military are not recent; in fact, they date to the 19th century. It was desperation with where Egypt was going in the early 1950s that led to popular support for the military takeover in 1952; it may yet be desperation with the chaos unfolding on Cairo's streets that leads to support for continued military control in the coming days.

As we think forward to how events in Egypt might play out, it is worth remembering the stake that the Egyptian military has in preserving at least some of the status quo. Not only might officers and former officers stand to lose a great deal economically, but the collapse of the government might deal a severe blow to the military as an institution as well.

Egypt's military officers, then, face a difficult choice. If they must choose, are they to be loyal to their commander or to their institution? If it is clear to everyone but Hosni Mubarak that the time has come when he must stand aside, or at least begin a process that will end with his departure from office, what is their role in securing that transition?

Right now, the military is the only government institution that still enjoys broad legitimacy. It is at a time of maximum peril. The choices it makes in the coming days will not only help determine the military's future, but the fate of the country as well.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jon Alterman.

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