TUNIS—When security forces started firing on protestors earlier this month on the streets of cities around Tunisia, the military stepped in. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's orders were to make the protests end, with live rounds if needed. The armed forces didn't listen. Troops moved into the streets and reportedly even deployed helicopters to stop paramilitary snipers who were shooting demonstrators from rooftops. The de facto head of the military, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Rachid Ammar, then prodded President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, saved the people's revolution, and -- most miraculously of all -- then declined to take power himself.
Tonight in Cairo, where armed personnel carriers and tanks can be seen patrolling the streets to enforce President Hosni Mubarak's curfew, Egyptian protesters may be wishing they were so lucky. The reactions of national militaries often determine whether a popular revolution lives or dies. And the armed forces of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen -- three countries where stunning public uprisings are challenging the existing order this week -- couldn't be more different. Among the three, Tunisia's small, professional force stands out as the exception, not just for its quality but for its separation from an entrenched, autocratic regime.
Long before protestors took to the streets late in 2010, the Tunisian military was unusual among its regional peers. First, unlike the bloated militaries of other Middle Eastern states, Tunisia's soldiers wouldn't fill the seats of most American college football stadiums. They are an enigma both to the Tunisian people and to the country's allies; the military often resists foreign aid, scoffing at such patronizing treatment. U.S. military officials told me Tunisia's armed forces had already canceled half the training exercises they had scheduled with the United States for 2011 because, frankly, the Tunisians couldn't be bothered. For the moment, the military is slated to get all of $4.9 million in U.S. military aid this year.
Then there is Egypt's military, which takes in about 260 times as much U.S. military aid -- an incredible $1.3 billion annually. That money means that, in many ways, the armed forces rule Egypt, says analyst Daniel Brumberg at the U.S. Institute for Peace. Mubarak, himself a former Air Force commander, has deftly used American taxpayers' dollars to underpin not just the military but his entire government. Egyptian generals are a privileged elite, enjoying weekends and retirements in breezy villas by the sea. They make clear that they expect a say in who rules the Arab world's most populous country once Mubarak leaves the scene. Keeping the U.S. military aid flowing dominates Mubarak's foreign policy, defined first and foremost in the region by its cold peace with Israel. After all, the annual influx of U.S. military aid ranks up there with tourism and Suez Canal tolls as Egypt's main sources of revenue.
So what will Egypt's military do should security forces start wholesale firing on Egyptian protestors, who are now pressing the largest-ever popular demands for an end to Mubarak's three decades in power? Only Egypt's commanders can know the answer. But what's clear is that the odds of the Egyptian military joining in a popular revolt are far more unlikely in Egypt than they were, in hindsight, in Tunisia.
If it came down to chaos in Egypt, with police and the people battling in the streets, the country's military probably would step in, retired Egyptian Gen. Mohammed Kadry Said told me by phone from Cairo before Friday's dramatic events. But not to save the people -- to save the buildings. Dealing with the people "is the mission of the interior minister," Said told me. "If the situation deteriorates, I think of course like any country maybe the army will interfere, not to help the people in the streets, but to secure sensitive places" such as government offices and security installations.