Anti-government protesters embraced troops sent out to the streets to restore order, an outpouring of affection and faith that the soldiers are on their side.

The soldiers went along, despite a government ban on all public gatherings issued after the protests began on Tuesday.

Troops allowed protesters to climb atop tanks and armoured personnel carriers, an apparent attempt to show impartiality in the showdown between President Hosni Mubarak and tens of thousands of protesters demanding his ouster.

Why the soft approach?

Was the Army caught between the two sides and paralysed by uncertainty? Or simply biding its time before what could become a violent showdown with the citizens on the streets, some calling for change while others simply loot.

The Army, a secretive organisation that traditionally shuns media attention, offered confusing clues- treating protesters with kid gloves while issuing a single public statement warning of harsh measures against those violating a night-time curfew or an official ban on public gatherings.

Only one thing was certain- the Army remains the most powerful institution in this suddenly chaotic nation, and whatever it does next will determine the future of the Arab world’s most populous country.

On Saturday, protesters jubilantly climbed atop Army tanks and armoured personnel carriers enforcing security in Cairo. They hugged and kissed the soldiers and posed for photographs with them. Some spray—painted the military vehicles with slogans demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

In Tahrir Square in the centre of the city, protesters hoisted an Army officer waving an Egyptian flag on their shoulders and chanted “The people and the Army are one hand together!”

Respect of citizens

Egypt’s 500,000—man Army has long enjoyed the respect of citizens who perceive it as the country’s least corrupt and most efficient public institution, particularly compared to a police force notorious for heavy handedness and corruption. It is touted as having defeated Israel in the 1973 Mideast War, and revered for that role.

The military, for its part, sees itself as the guarantor of national stability and above the political fray, loyal to both the government and what it sees as the interests of the general population.

The military has given Egypt all of its four Presidents since the monarchy was toppled in 1952. The 82—year—old Mubarak is former chief of the air force.

It was not clear if the unrest still surging in Cairo and around the country would end up pushing the Army to abandon either its easygoing stance toward the demonstrators, or its loyalty to the regime.

Some soldiers stood by Friday night and watched as looters sat upon supermarkets, shopping malls, police stations and nightclubs.

The Army’s enforcing order on the streets would risk the goodwill of some of the protesters although many fearful of disorder and looting would welcome it. A possible shift in the military was already evident on Saturday.

It warned it would deal harshly with “violators” and strongly advised against breaching the night-time curfew or joining gatherings.

The military Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Anan, cut short a visit to the United States and flew back to Cairo on Friday night.

Although it has almost completely withdrawn from politics since 1952, the Army has added to its strength by venturing into economic activity, playing a growing role in such key service industries as food production and construction.

It stepped in 2008 during an acute shortage of bread, Egypt’s main stable, which it provided from its own bakeries. It has since opened outlets for basic food items sold as vastly discounted prices.

The Army was clearly projecting an image of being the ultimate power in the country, moving swiftly to protect the state TV building, Parliament, the prime minister’s office and the Egyptian Museum, home to priceless artefacts dating back 5,000 years.

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