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Long a stable bulwark, military now a bellwether of Egypt's future

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Gunfire amid protests in Cairo
  • Mubarak has appointed veteran military and security leaders to his new cabinet
  • Whether the military will remain on Mubarak's side is uncertain, analysts say
  • Tuesday's planned mass marches will be watched for how the military responds

(CNN) -- As military and security veterans take top roles in President Hosni Mubarak's new government, it's unclear in the tumult whether their allegiance ultimately sides with the embattled Mubarak or with demonstrators demanding a regime change, experts said Monday.

The military's prominence in the new cabinet starts at the top: Egypt's former air force chief and aviation minister, Ahmed Shafiq, is the new prime minister. He was appointed by Mubarak, who also rose to power through the air force, with Shafiq even under his command in the 1970s, analysts said. The air force is regarded as the most privileged branch of the armed forces, with extensive perks.

Mubarak's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, is now the vice president, a post that Mubarak had left vacant the past 30 years.

Even while these old-guard figures were taking over the new government, the military -- long regarded as Egypt's bulwark for a stable and secular regime -- issued a statement Monday that it "will not use violence" against protesters.

"The military has to be careful," said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis for the global intelligence company Stratfor of Austin, Texas, which provides online analysis. "There's this perception that's been held by the opposition that the military is the gateway to a post-Mubarak Egypt."

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The military's declaration for nonviolence is a signal that "they're being careful, to be sure," Bhalla said.

"I think the word loyalist has become very relative now," Bhalla said. "Mubarak has become a liability. These guys are likely asking themselves how far they can actually go with Mubarak, if their association is a matter of their own political life or death."

On Monday, Suleiman offered to hold talks with opposition leaders and reiterated that the government's priority is to remedy widespread unemployment, poverty and prices.

"The president has commissioned me today to contact all the political powers and parties to start a dialogue and to tackle the issues in relation to reforming the constitution and legislation," Suleiman said.

But that effort could be seen as an attempt by Mubarak to blunt the opposition's demand to negotiate directly with a powerful cornerstone of Egyptian society, the military, Stratfor analysts said.

In Cairo, Mohammed Ali Belal, a retired Egyptian major general who was a commander in the Gulf War in the 1990s, said in a telephone interview with CNN that the military's standing in the political crisis was still taking shape Monday.

While commanders appear aligned with Mubarak and the choice of new cabinet members seems a middle-of-the-road maneuver, that relationship could change in coming days, Belal said.

"Everything is not clear," Belal said Monday. "It's better to wait and see what happens tomorrow morning. Tomorrow we'll see what the people will do (in response) to this new government."

More mass demonstrations are planned throughout Egypt on Tuesday.

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Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that as questions arise about Mubarak's viability as president, the Obama administration needs to hold high-level private talks with Mubarak and the military about ensuring a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

"One of the key questions now is, is it possible for President Mubarak to stay on or not," Dunne said.

In Washington, the Obama administration emphasized that Mubarak must focus on action and not merely a new cabinet, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

"This is not about appointments. This is about actions," Gibbs said. "It's obvious that more work needs to be done."

Gibbs said Monday that the administration was pleased that tensions appear managed between protesters and Egypt's armed forces.

"We are thus far pleased at the restraint that has taken place and encouraged that even as we see reports of increased participation tomorrow by protesters that calm and nonviolence, once again, carry the day on both sides," Gibbs said.

Gibbs was referring to Tuesday's planned demonstrations, which are being called a march of millions. In response, the Egyptian government announced it was shutting down cell phone systems for the march, in an apparent move to discourage participation.

How the protesters and soldiers on the street interact will be closely watched, analysts said.

Protesters in Alexandria, Egypt, said on Monday that they believed the street soldiers were on their side, but the senior brass was still regarded as loyal to Mubarak. In one incident in Alexandria on Monday, soldiers fired a machine gun into the air to restore order over protesters.

U.S. diplomatic cables sent from the Cairo embassy in 2008 and published by WikiLeaks showed that academics and civilian analysts viewed the Egyptian military as holding a strong influence in society, despite some erosion to its status.

The armed forces are in a state of intellectual and social decline because officers have fallen out of society's elite ranks, and mid-level officers view the defense minister as favoring loyalty over achievement among subordinates.

One professor is quoted in the cable as saying that mid-level officers view defense minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi as "Mubarak's poodle" whose incompetence and blind obedience to the president are "running the military into the ground," the cable said.

"While Egypt's military is in decline, it nevertheless remains a powerful institution," the cable said. "Analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises."

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