Is Egypt's Military for the People or President?

Egyptian Army Not Taking Sides - Yet 01:52

CAIRO, Egypt - As violence erupted Wed., Egypt's military did not step in to stop it.

After Egypt's brutal riot police melted away last Friday and the Army rolled in, they were embraced as protectors, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

Come to restore public order.

In fact, that's been their main role for almost 40 years.

It was the military that calmed riots in 2008 when the price of bread skyrocketed, handing out loaves to civilians.

The largest military in the Arab world - gets about a third of its money -- $1.3 billion in 2010 -- from the United States. It hasn't actually been in combat since 1973, when Egypt fought a war against Israel.

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Back then, the dashing commander of the air force -- Hosni Mubarak -- was hailed as a hero.

Two years later, he became president. Under his leadership, the military assumed huge power and wealth.

In a leaked cable - U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey said in 2008:

"The military operates a large network of businesses - as it becomes a quasi-commercial enterprise itself…"

With vast tracts of prime real estate and huge interests in many sectors including hotels, construction and weapons manufacturing, it's estimated to control at last a third of Egypt's economy.

The military has massive influence in government.

All three top cabinet officials appointed by President Mubarak a few days ago are senior military commanders.

So far the soldiers have declared themselves neutral in this crisis.

All day today, their top commanders were receiving calls from the Pentagon, urging restraint, but they still hold the balance of power. The question is: If Mubarak orders them to put down this uprising, will they obey?

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."