Two and a half years ago, as night descended on Cairo at the end of the "Friday of Anger," thousands of demonstrators had succeeded in fighting off riot police to take control of the heart of Egypt's capital and the roads leading to Tahrir Square. Long convoys of tanks moved slowly into the city, taking strategic points on the Nile bridges and around the national television building and the presidential palace.
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It could have been the "Tiananmen moment" of the Egyptian revolution, but the soldiers did not open fire. Officers jumped off the tanks, hugged protestors and promised they were there to protect them, not to suppress their clamor for democracy. In those moments the masses in the square began chanting: "The people and the army – one hand."
At that point the generals were still taking orders from President Hosni Mubarak and obeyed him when he directed them to fill the streets with thousands of combat soldiers and armored battalions. Helicopters and fighter jets flew low over the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir, the show of force intended to remind the demonstrators who had called the shots in Egypt for six decades.
But the protestors ignored the curfew order after dark and refused to return to their homes. For days, the military presence in Cairo intensified. Rumors circulated of an imminent military coup, of orders to shoot at demonstrators and of activists who had been spirited away in the dead of night.
A week later, however, it emerged that the army had refused to do Mubarak's dirty work. Instead of soldiers, the regime sent to the square thousands of mercenaries on camels and horses wielding knives and clubs. The army stood aside, and when the battle was over and the number of demonstrators had only swelled, the generals decided it was time to let Mubarak go. The announcement of his resignation also included the temporary transfer of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In the limelight
For nearly a year, the army had to take responsibility for running the largest Arab country, with a foundering economy and tourism, never-ending demonstrations, internecine fighting between Salafists and Copt-Christians. The generals who had always enjoyed their power behind the scenes were forced to the front of the stage to deliver answers. In the limelight, their popularity quickly waned.
Reports of arbitrary arrests, of torture and disappearances on army bases, of the "virginity tests" of detained female activists – soon these led to a change in the demonstrators' tone, and they began calling for the toppling of a new dictator, Defense Minister and SCAF chairman Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. The Marshal tried for a while to play a politician's role, was seen on the streets in a civilian suit, met with activists – but it was an unbridgeable gap, and the demonstrators refused to accept him.
A series of political moves by the generals – an attempt to form an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood; the appointment of a committee to draft a new constitution; fielding their presidential candidate, the former Air Force General Ahmed Shafik – all these failed, and after two election campaigns the generals found themselves facing a parliament with an Islamist majority and a senior Muslim Brother as president.
They hoped that Mohammed Morsi's election would calm the masses and leave them with their hold on the center of power and huge economic holdings, but at the first opportunity, while he still enjoyed wide popularity, the new president tried to dramatically weaken the army's influence by firing Tantawi and army chief of staff Sami Anan and replacing other senior generals.
But Morsi's administration is still weak and disorganized and has failed to keep the army in line for long. A year into his election – with millions out against him in the streets, the police once again disappearing, being replaced by gangs of Muslim Brotherhood supporters carrying sticks, and with the economy on the brink – the generals are striking back.
Ostensibly this is not a military coup, just a 48-hour ultimatum so that Morsi can "respond to the nation's demands," but the intention is unmistakable: They are taking back the reins of power.
The masses in Tahrir remembered the slogan, they roared once more, "The people and the army – one hand," and cheered every time a military helicopter flew over the square. They are acting as if they have already seen the end of Morsi – but it is only a matter of time until they are calling again for toppling the generals.