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An Egyptian Army soldier holds a flower given to him by anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square January 30, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Chris Hondros/Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
An Egyptian Army soldier holds a flower given to him by anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square January 30, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Chris Hondros/Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Egypt's military behemoth has firepower to crush uprising Add to ...

Egypt's military is Africa's biggest, a million-man behemoth armed with the second-best the Pentagon can offer and saddled with an ignominious history of defeat in war.

Respected - almost revered - by most ordinary Egyptians, the military is an old-fashioned combination of conscript rank-and-file, mostly ill-trained, sometimes illiterate ordinary solders, led by an elite officer corps that - for generations - trained abroad, in Britain, the Soviet Union and now, the United States.

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Modern American Abrams tanks - the same hulking monsters that spearheaded the 2003 U.S. lighting drive to Baghdad - now clatter down Cairo's streets, their tan desert camouflage strangely out of place between the demonstrating throngs and the torched ruins of party headquarters. Egypt's military may have mostly lost its country's wars, but it may determine its future

Like other major Arab militaries - notably Syria's and Iraq's - Egypt's armed forces, badly led and outfought by superior Israeli warplanes and tanks, was soundly defeated in 1967 and 1973. Since then it has been - mostly - untested, although President Hosni Mubarak answered U.S. president George H.W. Bush's call for an Arab army with 35,000 troops to help drive Saddam Hussein's invaders from Kuwait in 1991. Two Egyptian divisions were part of the 100-hour ground war. Not since 1977, when Egyptian warplanes and tanks laid waste to several Libyan border towns during a brief war between the two Arab neighbours, has Cairo's military won anything on its own.

Still the military - ranked 10th in the world in size - saps nearly $6-billion from Egypt's coffers annually. Another $1.3-billion in U.S. military aid is mostly spent on new American warplanes, tanks and attack helicopters.

With 500,000 regular forces and an equal number of reserves, Egypt's legions boast thousands of modern tanks and armoured vehicles, and more than 300 U.S.-built warplanes. But it has not much to do aside from sending roughly 2,000 peacekeepers to Darfur.

Conscripts must serve up to three years and are paid a pittance.

Those in the officer corps are educated, well-trained and feted. It's one of the few respected, middle-class professions in a split society where most of Egypt's 80 million people live in poverty, while a small elite enjoys great wealth. Egypt's military officers proudly insist they are strongly nationalistic, secular and loyal, but for generations that loyalty has been to Mr. Mubarak, as commander in chief.

However, Mr. Mubarak was an air-force officer and in the current internal crisis, it will be the army - not the much smaller air force and navy - that determines the outcome.

Egypt's military has the firepower to crush an uprising and certainly can do better than the disgraced police and the Interior Ministry's forces. But the bloated officer corps must know that the life of privilege, comfort and security they enjoyed in a repressive dictatorship headed by one of their own in uniform will be scaled way back if Egypt's military is reformed to match its miserable economic performance and lack of outside threats.

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