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.
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.
“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.
“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.”