Thousands of them have received official training and education in the United States, where they were exposed to the values of a democratic society, such as human rights and civilian rule over the military.
As events unfold in Cairo, the Army may yet turn the tide. Much depends on how the rank and file see their role. The Army has already stated it will not shoot the pro-democracy protesters. It even describes their demands as “legitimate.”
And yet soldiers stood by this week when pro-Mubarak groups attacked the demonstrators in Cairo.
While he received training in Russia and France, he has had regular contact with the Pentagon. Egypt and the US have had close military ties since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty – but especially because the US provides $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, or about a third of its military budget. In addition, hundreds of Pentagon officials operate in the country.
But Egypt is one of many friendly but authoritarian-run countries that sends officers to the US for various types of education, usually at institutions such as the Army War College or the National Defense University. The officers come under a little-known program called International Military Education and Training (IMET).
Their informal contacts with Americans, it is hoped, will instill democratic values that might be useful later during a confrontation in their home country.
That was the case, for example, in the Philippines in 1986, when American-educated officers helped civilians oust a dictator there. Yet during pro-democracy uprisings in Burma, the US had few officers in that country’s military who had been trained in the US or who had the clout to push for democracy.
IMET’s record is quite mixed on its ability to spread democracy through foreign armies. In Egypt’s case, all that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of its Army in recent days is that it showed “professionalism.”
Little is known of the Pentagon’s efforts to reach US-trained Egyptian officers and advise them to show restraint in dealing with the protests. Mubarak, a former Air Force commander, may fear the Army. He reportedly has tried to hold down the number of officers trained in the US. And after the protests began last month, he quickly filled government posts with former military officers in hopes of retaining military loyalty.
The Egyptian armed forces has a strong desire to keep good relations with the US and Israel, and perhaps to prevent Islamic militants from gaining power. It seems committed to constitutional government, and probably opposed the apparent ambition of Mubarak to groom his son for succession.
In coming days, the Army may be forced into a difficult choice: Support Mubarak, or the hundreds of thousands of civilians defying him in the streets.
Let’s hope the officers who have seen how a real democracy can work will pick the right side.