The open dialogue between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries may be pivotal in the coming days and weeks, as public unrest grows over President Hosni Mubarak’s plan to stay in office until September elections.
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama’s top military adviser, spoke today with his Egyptian counterpart for a second time in the past week and urged him to ensure a “return to calm.” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates later spoke to Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, their third call since demonstrations escalated last week.
Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “expressed his confidence in the Egyptian military’s ability to provide for their country’s security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area,” U.S. Navy Captain John Kirby said in an e-mailed statement.
Mullen, who spoke with Egyptian armed forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, and Gates made their calls after new violence erupted, with Mubarak supporters battling anti-regime protesters in Cairo. Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell didn’t provide details of the defense chiefs’ conversation.
The close ties between the two militaries stem from decades of strong U.S. support that began with the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and has grown to $1.3 billion in assistance that includes weapons sales, training and joint missions.
“The single most important thing we can do at the moment is shaping the calculations of the military,” said Bruce Rutherford, an associate professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and author of a 2008 book, “Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World.”
Obama himself was careful to compliment the Egyptian military’s “professionalism and patriotism” in remarks at the White House after Mubarak’s televised speech last night.
“I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful,” he said.
The Pentagon has 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.
Locally Made Arms
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.
More than 500 Egyptian military officers study each year at U.S. institutes such as the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington.
Including the air force and other units, the Egyptian military has 468,500 active duty personnel and 479,000 in the reserves. U.S. assistance pays for about a third of Egypt’s defense budget each year, Rutherford said.
Mubarak’s cabinet reshuffle this week put officers of the army, the air force and the intelligence service in charge. In addition to elevating Defense Minister Tantawi, an army field marshal, to deputy prime minister, Mubarak on Jan. 31 named intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and former air force commander Ahmed Shafik as prime minister.
Their predecessors last week replaced Interior Ministry police in the streets of Cairo with the more professional and popular army.
“The Egyptian military is the only credible institution,” said Scott Carpenter, director of a project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It has the faith of the people at the moment.”
Egypt’s current government doesn’t think “this is over at all,” Carpenter said. “They are trying to win over the key actors, the military.”
Mullen, who last visited Egypt a year ago, and Enan “have a good working relationship,” said Kirby. Mullen has been chairman of the Joint Chiefs since 2007. “It’s cordial and they can be frank with each other.”
The Egyptian army, which has 340,000 members, announced Jan. 31 that it wouldn’t use force against protesters demanding Mubarak’s resignation, a signal to the president that they wouldn’t turn on the demonstrators in his behalf, said Edward S. Walker, a former ambassador to Egypt and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
A key element of any succession might be whether the army has reached out to Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the United Nations atomic energy agency, who has been picked by the opposition to lead negotiations with the government, analysts said.
“The big issue is whether they’re comfortable with him being involved in political life,” Rutherford said.
American military instructors provide training on the ground in Egypt and in the U.S.
At the National Defense University in Washington, foreign officers learn concepts such as the proper role of the military in society, said David Lamm, deputy director of the university’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The center keeps in contact with its 120 Egyptian graduates, said Lamm, who in 1983, as a young captain, went to Egypt to retrain an airborne brigade in 1983.
“This relationship with the U.S. may have had a mitigating effect on the response of the Egyptian military,” Lamm said.
“The pressure will increasingly be on the military leadership to determine whether they’re going to stay with Mubarak or not,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The potential for violence has gone way up in the next couple of days.”
“Keeping the lines of communication open through Mullen and Gates makes all the sense in the world,” said Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of Defense for policy under Gates who is now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
Mubarak and his military leaders consider the U.S. military aid, called foreign military financing or FMF, as “untouchable compensation for making peace with Israel,” according to a Feb. 9, 2010, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo released on Jan. 28 by WikiLeaks, an organization that publishes secret government and corporate documents online.
Mubarak, a former air force commander, has established subsidized housing, schools and resorts for the military. Still, the army has never wanted to be in a position of having to confront the Egyptian people, Walker said.
“It’s antithetical to the belief of the officer corps, who really are very loyal to Egypt,” Walker said. “But it’s loyal to Egypt, not loyal to Mubarak.”