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US-Egyptian military ties: How much leverage does the Pentagon have?

The Egyptian military could play a pivotal role in resolving the crisis, but the Pentagon must weigh carefully how hard a line it wants to take with its Egyptian counterparts.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / February 3, 2011

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Ottawa Jan. 27, 2011. How much influence does the Pentagon have on the Egyptian military?

Chris Wattie/Reuters

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Washington

As violence on the streets of Cairo has intensified, Egyptians and Americans alike have been closely monitoring the actions of the Egyptian military, thought by many to hold the trump card in determining just how quickly Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leaves office.

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At the Pentagon, the Egyptian military’s potentially pivotal role is raising questions about the extent to which senior US military officials have influence on their Egyptian counterparts.

At stake are efforts to prevent widespread violence and preserve the strategic relationship between the countries that the close military ties represent.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke by phone Tuesday with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, reiterating his “desire to see the situation return to calm,” according to a senior US military official. Mullen also “expressed his confidence in the Egyptian military's ability to provide for their country's security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area.”

The following day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke by phone with the Egyptian minister of defense, Field Marshal Tantawi, his third conversation with him since last weekend.

Senior defense officials have declined to characterize the nature of these talks, beyond confirming that they took place. Indeed, sharing such details publicly is not in the best interest of the US military, says Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“One has to be very careful, you have to draw a fine line” between advising versus appearing to “dictate” to the Egyptian military, he says. “Almost all militaries are very, very careful to avoid the kind of relationships which could create the appearance of a client relationship, or of an independent channel of communication with people from another country.”

Mr. Cordesman adds, however that “carefully structured calls can do a great deal.”

These calls among senior military officials are likely focused “not on telling the Egyptians what to do, but on the values of restraint, on the need to preserve the army’s reputation,” Cordesman adds. “And I think a lot of it is going to be to reassure the military that the US will continue to support them as long as change is peaceful and moderate.”

Some have suggested that US military officials should also use these phone calls to remind Egyptian officials of America’s considerable arms sales to the country, including artillery, aircraft, and surface-to-air missiles.

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