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Egyptian army marches to the fore Add to ...

There was a clear winner in the battle for Egypt this week, but it was neither President Hosni Mubarak nor the Tahrir Square protesters. It was Egypt's army.

There may be doubts about how long Mr. Mubarak can hold on, or about the continued energy of the protesters, but there are no doubts about who really rules this country - who has always ruled it since 1952 - and who will continue to rule it far into the future: the military.

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On Friday, for example, the week ended on a relatively peaceful note, for which the 200,000 people who staged an all-day political protest on Tahrir Square can thank the Egyptian Army. It established a hard perimeter around the square that kept out the kind of violent pro-Mubarak demonstrators that attacked them Wednesday and Thursday.

Many people already have thanked them. As the tens of thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters filed between the armoured vehicles and submitted to searches by the soldiers, a lot of people shook the hands of the soldiers and had their pictures taken in front of the tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

People seem to have forgotten that just last Sunday, two fighter jets repeatedly flew low over Tahrir Square in an effort to intimidate the protesters, and that it was the army that rounded up foreign journalists and activists Thursday in an attempt to intimidate them.

The irony is that the vast majority of Egyptians, even most pro-democracy protesters, see the army as a kind of protective big brother.

The Defence Minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, even paid protesters a visit yesterday and was warmly welcomed.

Egypt's love affair with the army began in 1952, when a coup by military officers overthrew the century-old Egyptian monarchy. Since then, all the country's leaders have been army officers, chosen by the military to don civilian dress and leave behind their military rank. But they never leave behind their loyalty to the corps.

When Mr. Mubarak finally appointed a vice-president this week, he chose Omar Suleiman, a general, the head of intelligence. His new Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, is a former air force chief. Half the cabinet is military - in civvies.

Gone are the businessmen who dominated Egyptian politics for the past decade and ushered in a slew of economic reforms that brought about substantial economic growth. Some of those businessmen/cabinet ministers now are being investigated for alleged corruption, their bank accounts frozen and their ability to travel taken away. The latest to suffer this fate, it was announced Friday, was Rachid Mohamed Rachid, the powerful former minister of trade.

It is the new government's way of showing the pro-democracy protesters, and the world, that it is transitioning to democracy and to higher standards of ethics. It also is "the military's way of punishing those that gave their President and their country a bad name," a Western diplomat said.

There were several important statements made this week, and all were made by military men.

Mr. Mubarak announced he would not seek another term as President, and asked people to recall his glorious military career in which he had fought for his country. All he wanted now, he said, was to be able to fulfill his last command responsibilities and to die on and be buried in Egyptian soil. The speech moved many Egyptians and may have safeguarded him from meeting the same fate as his Tunisian counterpart, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to flee the country.

Prime Minister Shafiq apologized to the victims of assaults launched against peaceful protesters this past week and said the government would investigate and mete out severe punishment to those responsible.

And Vice-President Suleiman announced the government would immediately begin a process of political reform, based on negotiations with opposition and other groups, and said he was inviting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to join them.

In their way, all these statements were surprising, and would have seemed highly unlikely to be made even 10 days ago.

But none of them was more surprising than the statement released by the military command on Monday. It said that the army would not prevent peaceful demonstrations and that it viewed the demands of the anti-Mubarak protesters as legitimate. From that moment, Mr. Mubarak was serving on borrowed time and owed his continued position to the military command.

It was just a week ago that the army was brought in "to help the police" deal with pro-democracy demonstrators. While historical sites, banks and government institutions were guarded, a weekend of looting followed, as the army stood apart and let residents try to guard their own neighbourhoods.

Midway through the week, the army deployed around Tahrir Square also stood aside and allowed pro-Mubarak demonstrators to launch a brutal attack on unsuspecting protesters inside the square.

On Friday, the army was more fully deployed around the capital and most people welcomed them taking up positions to keep the pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters separated.

Egyptians have renewed their love affair with the army, having been reminded of its powers.

But they may not like what that power can do.

"The army will do whatever it has to, to stay in power," the diplomat said. "No one is so big they can't be sacrificed."

Regardless of the pressures from Wall Street and Washington, from protests in Cairo and Alexandria, or entreaties from Mr. Mubarak, it will be the army that decides if and when this President goes.

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