Cairo — The arrival here of a squadron of US Air Force Phantoms for joint training with the Egyptian Air Force represents a new stage in Egyptian-American defense cooperation.
Where before the Egyptians led the fight against Israel, now they are the linchpin of the United States defense strategy for the Gulf.
Closer defense ties between the two countries are, in part, a response to the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Afghanistan crisis, with Egypt signaling its willingness to assume a larger military role.
"The threat to the area is from the superpowers," said Defense Minister Ahmad Badawi in an interview with the Monitor. "We must help the other superpower -- the US -- to face the USSR. . . . Whether the other Arabs accept it or not, the leaership of Egypt is true."
President Sadat has gained American confidence by actively supporting US policy in the region -- including hosting the deposed shah and allowing the US rescue mission to refuel -- in the face of strong Arab criticism.
In recent speeches President Sadat has constantly widened Egypt's potential defense responsibilities. He has offered the use of Egyptian facilities: (a) to any Arab country tht asks for help; (b) to rescue the hostages; and (c) to any Islamic country that asks for help.
At the same time, according to Defense Minister Badawi, the Egyptian Army is training soldiers from Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, and Zaire, In addition, there are Egyptian military experts in several Arab countries.
"Sadat wants to show the Arabs and the US that without Egyp there is no security," says an Egyptian military expert, "and that for the [moderate] Arabs, there is no alternative."
Many factors contribute to Egypt's strategic importance as a US ally.
With the Suez Canal and Sin ai, Egypt controls naval, land, and overflight access of great importance to the Gulf. Currently, US planes cannot overfly Israel and then overfly its Arab neighbors.
With a relatively stable regime and the largest standing army (400,000 soldiers) in the region, Egypt is also an important plus in the Carter administration's rapid-deployment defense scheme. Under this arrangement, friendly local forces form the first defensive line until American troops are flown in to man pre-positioned equipment.
Egypt has also privided the US with a testing ground for deployment and joint training exercises that other countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, have been unable or unwilling to provide. Most importantly, Egypt is (or could become) an acceptable ally to its Arab neighbors, whereas Israel is not.
Meanwhile, the traditionally perceived role of Israel as the strongest and most stable US ally in the region appears to be changing as a result of Israel's internal dissension, the decision to return Sinai to Egypt, and Egypt's own growing stature in US eyes. Although some Israelis fondly envision a tripartite alliance between Israel, Egypt, and the United States, it is anathema to most Egyptians.
According to one Western military expert, Israel "is out of it as a regional power" until it broadens its horizons from purely Israeli interests to larger regional interests.
Egyptians are apparently waiting for the pressure of external events to force the moderate Arab countries -- in particular, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states -- to the inevitable conclusion that they need Egypt to survive. "We have an old saying in Arabic," remarked one Egyptian official. "I am with my brother against my cousin, and with my cousin against the enemy. That is what will happen."
Although hints given by Jordan and Saudi Arabia in recent week would seem to support this stance, other Egyptians agree with the West European view that no alliance is possible until the Palestinian problem is resolved.
But the question gnawing at the back of American officials minds in a post-Iran era is the long-term reliability of Egypt as an ally. The lesson of the Russians, whose 15,00 military experts were expelled by President Sadat in 1972 after yeas of heavy involvement, is still a recent memory. So is the fall of the Shah, when the US lost vast quantities of sophisticated weaponry. While the Sadat regime depends heavily on the US for military and economic aid, the Egyptian President has made it clear that "facilities" -- Egyptian-owned military installations with controlled access, under the cognizance and supervision of the Egyptians -- rather than leased bases, will be made a available to the US.