Strong and Silent

The military has shown its muscle by holding its fire. If Mubarak falls, it may have to lead

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Dominic NahrMagnum for TIME

Soldiers in armored personnel carriers patrol the protests

An army traditionally makes history by fighting. That's what makes the sidelining of the Egyptian army so startling. Its tanks and soldiers stood mute around Cairo's Tahrir Square, doing nothing as protesters clashed with camel-riding pro-government thugs. The troops watched as demonstrators in the square fled in fear from those brandishing sticks and machetes from on high. The army did little more than fire warning shots, which angered demonstrators seeking protection from Hosni Mubarak's henchmen.

Yet by standing at parade rest, the army was suggesting, at least for the time being, that Mubarak's government, after 30 years in power, can't count on the army to beat his people into submission. "The army has the capacity to crush demonstrators as well as ... end the regime," says Hala Mustafa, editor of the government-funded Al Ahram Quarterly Democracy Review. "But till now, the army remains neutral."

Sometimes, it seems, inaction speaks louder than action. It makes it clear that the army is not only the most powerful institution left in Egypt but also the one that will determine whether the revolution now under way ends violently. "The history of the Egyptian military is that it has not been the oppressive arm of the government," says Bill Daley, the White House chief of staff. "That's an enormous plus."

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has twice talked by phone with his Egyptian counterpart, Lieut. General Sami Enan. "So far," Mullen said, "the Egyptian military have handled themselves exceptionally well." Though the army wasn't talking about its goals and methods, Americans familiar with that part of the world believe it highlights one of the benefits of the close U.S.-Egyptian military relationship.

The two men who have been running Egypt lately — soon-to-retire President Mubarak, 82, and his freshly minted Vice President, 74-year-old Omar Suleiman — both trained at Moscow's Frunze Military Academy, which offered courses in Marxism and Communist Party work. That's where they learned how to command subordinates — and deal with upstarts. Like the rest of the Egyptian military of their day, they marched for decades in lockstep with the Soviet military's dogma and doctrine.

But ever since the Camp David accords led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, a growing number of seasoned Egyptian military officers have come to U.S. military schools, including the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.; the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kans.; and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. In the U.S., the curriculum was a little different. Fed on coursework in democracy and civilian control of the military, these younger officers are helping act as the "safety" on the Egyptian army massed on the streets of Cairo and other cities.

"This new generation of Egyptian officers has been exposed to the American military and is impressed not just in the way we fight our wars but also about the relationship between the military and society," says Robert Scales, a retired Army major general who served as commandant of the Army War College. "One of the reasons for the army's reluctance to squeeze the population in Cairo has to do with the Egyptian military's exposure to the U.S. military." Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, a former chief of the U.S. Central Command, which includes Egypt, agrees. "If you look at the investment we've made in the [Egyptian] military," he says, "you can see that it may be paying off."

It's a nice line, but the bulk of U.S. support to the Egyptian armed forces consists of weapons, not lessons. U.S. taxpayers are still spending $3.5 million a day on the Egyptian military, buying it everything from F-16 jets to M-1 tanks. Its 468,000 troops make it the world's 10th largest military, providing a route into the middle class for many officers. Time spent in the army often leads to a lucrative job in Egypt's military-industrial complex after retirement. Army officers carried out the 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy, and all four Presidents since have come from its ranks. It was a hit squad from the army that assassinated President Anwar Sadat at a military review in 1981, but generally the military has stayed out of direct involvement in politics. It has been content to leave the dirty work of dealing with domestic critics of the regime to the reviled Interior Ministry police.

U.S. officials concede they have no idea how the current crisis is going to play out. Their hope is that the Egyptian army uses its clout to ease out Mubarak, a former air force chief, while acting as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. But Zinni says there are "red lines" the Egyptian army won't let anyone cross. If Islamists try to hijack the uprising, for example, he believes the army would find itself in a fight. Daniel Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace says the Egyptian military won't be able to sit on the sidelines forever. "It may find itself compelled to play an arbitrating role in a new democracy," he says. "That's a much more complicated role."

As the standoff continues, few are more pleased at the restraint shown by the Egyptian military than Gawdat Bahgat, a Cairo-born professor at the National Defense University. "The Egyptian army is not acting like other armies. It did not kill," Bahgat says. "It's fair to say the United States should get some credit for this." While only a handful of Egyptian officers get tapped for such programs, he says, they're the nation's best — and wield outsize influence when they return home.