Egyptian army begins crackdown in Cairo

The biggest decision in Egypt has always belonged to the army — not Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed ElBaradei, or the Muslim Brotherhood.  The protests would only continue unimpeded as long as the army allowed them to do so.  McClatchy reports that the army has apparently decided that enough is enough:

The Egyptian military has rounded up scores of human rights activists, protest organizers and journalists in recent days without formal charges, according to watchdog groups and accounts by the detainees. While most arrests have been brief — lasting fewer than 24 hours — experts say they’re a sign that the regime’s notorious tradition of extrajudicial detentions is continuing even as Mubarak appears to be on his way out of power.

Arbitrary arrests by police forces are among Egyptians’ bitterest and longest running complaints against their government, which gives security services sweeping powers under a state of emergency that’s been in place almost nonstop since 1967.

The perpetrators of the latest arrests, however, are Egyptian army soldiers, deployed on the streets for the first time in more than two decades after the police all but disappeared following clashes with protesters on Jan. 25. The man most likely to lead the transition to a post-Mubarak era, Vice President Omar Suleiman, is Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief.

“If the military is going to continue to arrest activists and arrest journalists, that does point to a pattern of a crackdown,” said Heba Morayef, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s a worrying sign of things to come … because the military is going to play a big role going forward.”

And they want everyone to know it, too.  At the beginning of the protests, the army shielded demonstrators from the police, who are in Mubarak’s pocket.  Now they’re outdoing the police in rounding up dissidents.  That does not bode well for any short-term transition of power.

However, it’s not exactly good news for Mubarak, either.  By usurping the role of Mubarak’s police, the army is more or less imposing martial law.  That may work to Mubarak’s benefit at the moment, as it will secure his place at the top while everything else gets sorted.  It may also leave Mubarak a figurehead to a military junta — and just as in Iran, getting rescued by the military from a popular uprising means that the military gets to play a much larger role in governance.

In the long run, military control might be good news, although perhaps not with the start of rounding up dissidents.  If the highly-respected military replaces Mubarak, they can dictate (pun intended) a slower-paced transition to civilian governance, hopefully allowing for political parties to organize to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and marginalize the Islamists from the start.  It could also just stagnate into a military dictatorship, or another Mubarak with a different name.  Among a series of bad choices, well, this is certainly … one of them.