After masses of ordinary Egyptian people had seen off the cops and burned down police stations, the army appeared on the streets.
Dictator Hosni Mubarak hoped the soldiers would restore “order”. But instead protesters stood on tanks and waved Egyptian flags. They chanted, “The army and the people are one hand.”
All that week, huge demonstrations in cities demanding the fall of Mubarak had become intense battles with police, culminating in a “Friday of Rage”.
On Friday 28 January, 2011—ten years ago this week—battles took place at every major road into Tahrir Square in the capital city Cairo. Special riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets, then live ammunition and armoured vehicles against protesters.
But they were overwhelmed and driven off the streets.
In the wake of the battle, the arrival of tanks looked like a threat. But protesters rushed to embrace the soldiers “with remarkable spontaneity,” wrote Egyptian socialist and participant in the revolution Sameh Naguib.
“This was not as many people remarked, simply confusion among the masses about the real role of the army, although such confusion existed,” he said.
“It was rather a brilliant and rapid neutralisation of the armed forces in the squares and the streets, making it near impossible for the soldiers and young officers to shoot at the people even if they were ordered to.”
It marked a key point in the early days of the revolution—a moment when the regime began to crack and turn in on itself.
The army was a major part of the Egyptian state. Mubarak’s support was a pillar of the US’s control of the Middle East. So the US plied Egypt’s army with billions of dollars and special training for officers.
But the army did more than just serve Mubarak.
It also controlled vast swathes of manufacturing and agriculture making up about 20 percent of the Egyptian economy.
They had been loyal to Mubarak because they had just as much of a stake in the regime as he did. They were never on the side of the revolution.
Yet the majority of soldiers and junior officers were conscripts from working class, peasant or lower middle class backgrounds.
The generals were terrified that, if they ordered the soldiers to fire on the protesters, they would join the revolution instead.
“The army leaders were prepared to sacrifice Mubarak to save the regime that ultimately rested on their ability to keep their power over their troops,” wrote Sameh.
Military spokesperson general Ismail Othman declared that the army recognised the legitimate demands of the protesters and wouldn’t shoot them.
But it didn’t protect them either.
After the defeat of the police, regime figures and their billionaire backers recruited thugs to attack the protesters in Tahrir Square.
On 2 February the army told protesters in the square to disperse. Later that day gangs armed with rocks, clubs, whips, machetes and Molotov cocktails attacked the square from all sides—some charging in on horses and camels.
It was up to the protesters to organise their own defence. The army stood by while the battle raged all night.
It was ordinary people who eventually overthrew Mubarak. But he was replaced by a military council led by some of his top generals who had no interest in the revolution.
The people and army leaders were on very different sides—they were not one hand.
The army had to give in to some of the revolution’s demands. But it wasn’t long before the revolution became a struggle against the generals that once pretended to be on its side.