cairo - Reuters - February 1 2011
An Egyptian family passing by soldiers near a museum in Cairo yesterday. Photo by Reuters
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CAIRO - "We're here to protect the people," says Major Ahmed, an officer in the Egyptian army's radio corps. "That's our only job."

The short major observes one of the elevated roads leading to the center of Cairo. He is in charge of laying out the communications network connecting the various units, infantry and armor in the Egyptian capital.

"We also have satellite communications," he says, pointing to the paratrooper's wings on his chest.

Talking to a group of admiring youngsters, he says: "I jumped three times from a plane, but I'm not a professional paratrooper. I'm a computer man."

He adds: "This is the army's curfew, not the government's or the police's, so the public respects it."

In fact, the army permits anyone who so desires to remain all night in Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands of demonstrators who decide to go home leave in an orderly manner at 10 P.M. Then the streets are under the control of the army and groups of citizens who volunteer to protect their neighborhoods from looters.

Like Egyptian society, the army consists of classes. The lower-rank soldiers are mostly working class or conscripts from farmers' families in the Delta villages.

On the night between Sunday and Monday, five soldiers sit on the pavement on Corniche El-Nile Street, watching the city lights reflected in the river. Around them sit local youngsters providing them with cigarettes.

"We're all friends here," one of them says in English. The soldiers smile sheepishly.

The middle-rank officers, men in their '30s and '40s who have chosen a military career, are mostly educated and speak decent English. They are proud of the relatively modern American equipment at their disposal and are interested in tightening ties with the West, not only because of the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance their country receives from the United States.

They try to avoid talking about politics but appear to sympathize with the sentiments of the masses demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.

"I can't talk about the government now," says one colonel in charge of the force protecting the national television building. "I have not received clear orders, except to be here with my soldiers. We will stay here as long as we're needed."

On Sunday night, the army was caught between the police and demonstrators when a long convoy of tanks was sent into the square, half an hour before the police-imposed curfew was to come into effect, at 4 P.M. Afterward, two F-16 planes and a gunship flew over the crowd. The masses, however, responded by encouraging the soldiers and embracing them.

Yesterday, the armored convoy left the square, leaving a number of tanks and armored personnel carriers at its entrances and near the Egyptian Museum. The tanks and most of the soldiers moved to intersections and entrances to the city. The soldiers milling in the crowd in Tahrir Square leave their AKA rifles in the tanks and armored personnel carriers and mingle unarmed with the people, who call out words of encouragement. Several soldiers serve as traffic policeman after the police have disappeared.

The hatred people feel toward the police seems to intensify their love for the army. Many of the middle class manage to evade military service, but quite a few educated young people have served as junior officers.

"I used to be a second lieutenant in the Engineering Corps," says Mustafa Mabruk, a 25-year-old civil engineer."Our base once hosted Defense Minister Tantawi. We built a special gate for him that cost 1 million Egyptian pounds. I thought at the time how many young people could get married and raise families with that money."

The senior officers are identified with the regime and are part of the political leadership headed by Mubarak, who himself formerly served as air force commander. The newly appointed deputy president and prime minister are also generals.

"If Tantawi gives an order to shoot civilians, they won't listen to him," says one demonstrator, who recently completed his military service.

The generals are keeping their distance from the protesters. Tantawi came to visit the forces on the banks of the Nile but kept well away from the crowds. The love the people feel toward the army does not include him.