Pentagon officials are using public praise and private phone calls to help the Obama administration maintain connections and influence with the Egyptian military, which took control of the country Feb. 11 and promised a transition to democracy.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama’s top military adviser, have made regular telephone calls to their counterparts, according to Pentagon spokesmen Geoff Morrell and Navy Captain John Kirby, who provided few details on the substance of the conversations.
The calls aren’t intended to pressure the Egyptian military to do anything specific, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity. Decades of ties, including training of Egyptian officers at elite U.S. military schools, has established relationships between the two forces and made pressure unnecessary so far, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the calls.
The connections may be critical in the coming weeks and months as Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces directs a process toward elections and democratic rule, after President Hosni Mubarak ceded his powers to it Feb. 11.
“The military, for its part, is going to have to show some results right away,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt who is a lecturer at Princeton University. Lifting the state of emergency that’s been in effect for 30 years and given power to security forces would “send a powerful signal throughout the society,” he said.
As Gates and Mullen have tried to keep on top of events in Egypt, they’ve also sought to reassure allies and partners in the region of U.S. backing. Gates and other top U.S. officials met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the White House this week, and Mullen headed to Jordan and Israel to meet with senior civilian and military leaders there yesterday and today.
Mullen will attend a ceremony marking the end of Israeli Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi’s term as chief of staff. “In both countries, he will discuss security issues of mutual concern and reassure both these key partners of the U.S. military’s commitment to that partnership,” Kirby said.
Obama appealed to the Egyptian army’s restraint and professionalism again Feb. 11, as have Gates and Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in their few public statements since the demonstrations began. Gates has spoken five times during the crisis with his counterpart, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who is head of the council that has taken charge, according to Morrell.
“The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people,” Obama said, before laying out a list of expectations. They include lifting the 30-year state of emergency, revising the constitution and guaranteeing free and fair elections.
“I urge the Egyptian military to follow through on its commitment to lift emergency rule and schedule free and fair elections,” said Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the State Department, which negotiates foreign aid agreements and weapons sales.
John Negroponte, the first U.S. director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday that the U.S government will “play a role of holding the military’s feet to the fire” to ensure it makes democratic reforms, such as revising the constitution and enabling multiple political parties.
Egypt receives about $1.3 billion a year in military aid. The Pentagon has about 625 personnel in Egypt, helping keep the peace along the border with Israel and coordinating aid and weapons sales from such companies as General Dynamics Corp ., Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and United Technologies Corp .
Egypt assembles U.S.-designed Abrams tanks under contract with Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics and the U.S. Army. The Egyptian Air Force flies F-16s from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters from Chicago-based Boeing and Black Hawk helicopters made by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a division of United Technologies of Hartford, Connecticut.
Congress could cut back the aid if Egypt moves in a direction contrary to U.S. policy, including peace with Israel.
“The Egyptian people are demanding a meaningful and irreversible transition to democracy,” said Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I urge the Egyptian military to faithfully support and secure the coming process of political change in Egypt.”
Other U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group accused of terrorist ties, might seize control of the country.
“I don’t think the military are going to let the Muslim Brotherhood take over and the Muslim Brotherhood know that and they’re keeping their heads down, and saying basically they don’t want to take over,” Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who is vice president for foreign policy at the nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday.
The Egyptian military can afford to exercise its independence from foreign interference, even after more than 30 years and billions of dollars of U.S. assistance, because of its relative professionalism and its view of U.S. assistance as part of a two-way bargain, officials and analysts say.
“The fact that we have a good relationship means that they’re going to listen to you, not that they’re going to follow you,” said Graeme Bannerman, a former U.S. lobbyist for Egypt who’s now a scholar for the Middle East Institute in Washington. “In the end, they’ll make the decision based on what is best in the Egyptians’ national interest.”
The Egyptian military may also have acquired some of its professional standards and ethics while studying at U.S. military educational institutions such as the service war colleges and the National Defense University. More than 500 a year come to the U.S. for advanced training, in addition to the contacts they have in Egypt with U.S. personnel, who help them adapt to the American weapons and equipment they receive.
The standards taught “include a role for civilian influence over decision-making,” said Robert Springborg, a professor of political economy of the Middle East at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
Springborg said he doesn’t think the U.S. has had much influence over the decisions of the Egyptian military during the turmoil in Cairo and other major cities.
“I think the military has looked after its own interests as the high command sees them,” he said.
The Egyptian military isn’t likely to get too involved in details of constitutional changes or get so comfortable that they would want to hang on to power, Bannerman and others said.
1979 Peace Agreement
The Egyptian military sees the aid it receives every year from the U.S. as recompense for its 1979 peace agreement with Israel and for basing and access that the U.S. receives, analysts said.
“They see the aid as a partnership,” Bannerman said. As a result, Gates and Mullen aren’t likely to press too hard, he said. “They’re smart enough to know that’s not how to get them to do it.”
Still, the Arab world lacks examples of a military successfully shepherding a society toward democracy, said David Ottaway, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The military in Algeria and Sudan allowed multiparty democracy for short periods before returning to power, he said.
“This military has stayed out of politics for 30 years and now it’s getting back in,” said Ottaway, a retired Washington Post journalist who served as Cairo bureau chief in the 1980s. “I don’t think we know how it’s going to play out.”
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