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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.

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“Should we even threaten the Egyptian military? I think it’s a good idea,” says Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “We give military aid to Egypt because it’s in our national interest to do that.

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“If there were to be a Tiananmen Square incident in Egypt, it would be catastrophic,” he says. “We need to clearly signal to the Egyptian military that on the one hand, we admire the degree of restraint they have shown, but that our relationship would not be immune” from the impact of military violence against demonstrators.

Others doubt the value of using US military aid as leverage with Egyptian military. The conversations of defense officials with their counterparts likely “will not consist of threats or leverage – that would be counterproductive,” Cordesman says.

A large and varied force

What’s more, though senior US military officials may have strong relationships with their equally senior counterparts, the Egyptian Army is a large and varied force, making it difficult to predict the extent to which US military has any influence throughout the ranks.

President Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman “were trained by the Soviets,” says retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, the former commandant of the US Army War College. Yet since then, the Egyptian Army “has gone through this transformation over the past 20 or 25 years. They really are a different army than in Mubarak’s formative years.”

It was the officers who came up through the Egyptian military in subsequent years that were more influenced by the United States. In the early 1980s, Egypt “started sending a great many of their best and brightest to our schools,” Scales notes, adding that many of the Egyptian officers trained at US war colleges are now generals who brought their wives and children with them during their time in America.

Those officers “learn our way of war, which is the important thing, but they also learn our philosophies of civil-military relations and they socialize – which lasts the rest of our lives,” says Scales.

One important difference is that the Egyptian Army, unlike the American military, is a conscript service. In that respect, there are pluses and minuses from a US perspective. “The military rank and file comes from the poorer part of Egyptian society, but the officers take an exam to get into the military academy,” Scales explains. “And they do a pretty good job of competing based on merit.”

Civilians feel connection to military

Because of its diversity and mixed base, many Egyptian civilians feel a connection to the military, as opposed to the less widely-respected police force. It also tends to be a nationalistic force that “has always seen itself as a guardian of the state,” Cordesman argues.

Yet even as Egypt wrestles with Mubarak’s future, the key role for the US military will come after a new government is in place, he says. “Then there will be a clear need to have the US military work with the Egyptian military to reassure them and to make it clear that we’re not going to remove support even if a regime is not as favorable.”

Ultimately, says Cordesman, “There are decisions that the US military has some influence over, but no ability to predict.”

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