Last night, a military officer guarding the tens of thousands celebrating in Cairo threw down his rifle and joined the demonstrators, yet another sign of the ordinary Egyptian soldier’s growing sympathy for the democracy demonstrators. We had witnessed many similar sentiments from the army over the past two weeks. But the critical moment came on the evening of 30 January when, it is now clear, Mubarak ordered the Egyptian Third Army to crush the demonstrators in Tahrir Square with their tanks after flying F-16 fighter bombers at low level over the protesters.
Many of the senior tank commanders could be seen tearing off their headsets – over which they had received the fatal orders – to use their mobile phones. They were, it now transpires, calling their own military families for advice. Fathers who had spent their lives serving the Egyptian army told their sons to disobey, that they must never kill their own people.
Thus when General Hassan al-Rawani told the massive crowds yesterday evening that “everything you want will be realised – all your demands will be met”, the people cried back: “The army and the people stand together – the army and the people are united. The army and the people belong to one hand.”
Last night, the Cairo court prevented three ministers – so far unnamed, although they almost certainly inc-lude the Minister of Interior – from leaving Egypt.
But neither the army nor Vice-President Suleiman are likely to be able to face the far greater demonstrations planned for today, a fact that was conveyed to 83-year-old Mubarak by Tantawi himself, standing next to Suleiman. Tantawi and another general – believed to be the commander of the Cairo military area – called Washington, according to a senior Egyptian officer, to pass on the news to Robert Gates at the Pentagon. It must have been a sobering moment. For days, the White House had been grimly observing the mass demonstrations in Cairo, fearful that they would turn into a mythical Islamist monster, frightened that Mubarak might leave, even more terrified he might not.