For 30 years, the United States has been Egypt’s weapons supplier, military trainer and financier.
Along the way, top U.S. military officers built close relationships with their Egyptian counterparts. But for all those connections, the Pentagon is finding that it can exert only limited influence as it watches events play out in Cairo.
The resignation Friday night of President Hosni Mubarak left the Egyptian military in charge of the country. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had decided to step down and "has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state."
The shift to military rule, even if temporary, makes the intimate familiarity of U.S. officers with their Egyptian counterparts such as Gen. Sami Anan, chief of staff of the armed forces, all the more important.
By coincidence, Anan was in the middle of annual bilateral talks at the Pentagon with Assistant Secretary of Defense Sandy Vershbow two weeks ago just as the Cairo protests were starting to shake the foundations of the Mubarak regime.
Top stories: Turmoil in the Middle East
A spectacular symbol of the enduring U.S.-Egyptian military relationship appeared early in the crisis on Jan. 30, when U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-16 jets (each worth about $40 million) swooped over Cairo, in an apparent show of force by the Mubarak government.
How that military-to-military relationship might change in the post-Mubarak era is one of the biggest unknowns for the Obama administration.
The day before Mubarak's resignation, U.S. foreign policy experts were emphasizing the scant ability of American officials to nudge events in the direction of a stable democratic regime.
“The limits are clear,” Richard Haas, a former top State Department official under President George W. Bush and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Thursday. “The U.S. military can communicate messages, as they have been doing and are doing, to their Egyptian counterparts. But at the end of the day, the Egyptian military is going to act in ways that they believe are necessary for their institutional requirements and for their national requirements.”
Steven Cook, a Council on Foreign Relations specialist on Egypt who returned from Cairo two weeks ago, said Thursday, “I would go so far as to say President Mubarak retains the loyalty of the senior command even though he is transferring power to Vice President Omar Suleiman. ... The military remains committed to defending the Egyptian state. I can’t emphasize enough how deeply intertwined they are” with the Mubarak regime.
Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington cautioned in a memo Thursday that, “There is no one military, and a careful distinction needs to be made between the real military” which is under the Defense Ministry, and the security forces that are under Ministry of the Interior.
“These latter forces are the primary source of the oppression documented in the annual U.S. State Department human rights report, and of the growing authoritarianism and abuses that Egyptians are now protesting,” he said.
But some regular military officers, he said, “do have every reason to be loyal to the status quo. There are significant numbers of retired senior military officers in Mubarak's inner circle who have been given sinecures and senior posts in the civil government and state industries, and who will want to continue to benefit from the regime,” he said. But the bulk of retired senior officers “don't enjoy these privileges.”
The implication is that a division could exist in the Egyptian military, both active and retired, between those who backed Mubarak and those who supported change.
In fact, U.S. officials told NBC News that Egyptian military officials turned on President Hosni Mubarak Thursday night, when some senior military officials threatened to take off their uniforms and join the protesters.
Asked if this was a military coup, an official said, "Call it clear military pressure."
The most dramatic action Obama and Congress could take to break with the new military regime would be to cut off the $1.3 billion the United States has given Egypt annually under the Foreign Military Financing program to allow it to purchase U.S.-made jets, helicopters, missiles and other hardware.
Haas counseled against that step Thursday. “I think the administration is wise to not be talking any longer about potentially threatening aid cutoffs,” he said. “The Egyptian military is obviously the pivotal institution. Why do you want to cut off, or in any way threaten to cut off, one of your ties to that institution?”
Jason Brownlee, an Egypt expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, points out that if the Obama administration threatened the Egyptian government —either the current one or a future one — with a cutoff of military hardware, the Egyptians could respond by saying, “You know your nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that we’ve been letting pass through the Suez Canal without any inspections? We’re going to have start inspecting those now, because we’re always worried about a nuclear accident happening in the Suez Canal.”Story: 'Egypt is free,' crowds cheer after Mubarak quits
That could cause U.S. Navy movement from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf to grind to a halt, Brownlee said.
Any advice Defense Secretary Robert Gates or U.S. officers are giving to the Egyptians is now being given in private, said Haas, “and that’s exactly the way it should be. ... But the bigger reality is the limits of U.S. influence and the limits of U.S. knowledge.”
Haas said he worries that “the longer this drags on, the more the army ‘gets out of the barracks.’ I see two fundamental risks: the more the army becomes a political actor, it loses some of its ‘above politics’ or ‘beyond politics’ legitimacy. Secondly, it could be forced into situations where it needs to takes sides and that could ultimately mean the use of force against one (side) or another.”
On Tuesday, Gates lavished praise on Egyptian officers, saying “I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode. They have acted with great restraint. Frankly, they have done everything that we have indicated we would hope that they would do. ... They have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy and what we're seeing in Egypt.”Video: Obama slammed over tactics in Egypt crisis
A shared history
In the past, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship was based largely on a decades-long familiarity — American officials became accustomed to repeated dealings with one president and his military complex.
Gates underscored the personal nature of the alliance during a 2009 visit to Cairo, saying, “I first met President Mubarak nearly 20 years ago,” — when Gates was director of Central Intelligence — “and over the years multiple American presidents and administrations have benefited from his wise counsel.
“Our own military has benefited from the interaction with the Egyptian armed forces, one of the most professional and capable in the region," he added.
That connectivity runs through the top ranks of U.S. and Egyptian military officers, who “are interwoven in their personal connections through the training that they’ve done and through their common strategic vision for the Middle East,” said Brownlee.
“It’s quite a close relationship, with influence that can go in both directions," he said. "We talk about leverage. Leverage is mutual. I think one of the reasons why the U.S. has difficulties, not just right now, but over the past decade, getting more political reform through (in Egypt) is because any discussion of political change in Egypt is circumscribed by what the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies need from the Egyptian government.”
From the point of view of top Pentagon officials, Brownlee, it’s a case of, “We know these people, we’ve had a good working relationship with them, and we’d like to continue it. To the extent, we’re nudging them at all, we’re nudging them in a way that will try to maintain the relationship, not in a way that is going to transform it.”
For a relationship that might appear right now to provide the United States with only limited influence, the American investment in Egypt has cost billions of dollars and taken many forms.
Last year, for example, the Obama administration awarded a $213 million contract to Lockheed Martin for production of 20 new F-16s for Egypt, which already owns 240 of the planes. “This is a great day for Lockheed Martin and a testament to the enduring partnership and commitment we have made to the government of Egypt,” said Lockheed Vice President John Larson.
Other recent Defense Department investments range from $210 million for refurbishment and upgrading of four U.S.-made frigates in the Egyptian Navy to $145 million for anti-ship missiles made by Boeing.Video: Protesters deeply distrustful of Mubarak
Egyptian officers train at American military staff colleges under the International Military and Education Training program, funded at about $1.4 million a year.
U.S. Marines and Navy forces conduct biannual joint training with Egyptian and other forces as part of Exercise Bright Star, established in 1981 as a result of the Camp David Peace Accords.
In 2009, U.S. Marines stormed Egyptian beaches near Alexandria during an amphibious assault demonstration as part of Bright Star. “It’s been really crucial for preparing U.S. forces for battles in a desert climate,” said Brownlee.
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The investment in the Egyptian military as a bulwark of regional influence has made sense for U.S. strategic needs: preserving the Egypt-Israel peace accord and projecting U.S. military forces into the Persian Gulf to safeguard energy supplies.
“Egypt is incredibly cooperative when it comes to U.S. vehicles, personnel and materiel going through its territory and going through the Suez Canal,” Brownlee said.
From 2001 to 2005, the Egyptian government provided on average 20 overflight permissions per day to U.S. military aircraft, as well as preferential access to the Suez Canal, Brownlee said.
And even though Mubarak publicly opposed the Iraq war “he was operationally fully cooperative” in the U.S. effort to move and re-supply troops, Brownlee noted.
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