Pentagon: US influence on Egypt military 'limited,' but ties pay dividends

The US can't call the shots with its $1.6 billion in aid, but access to Egypt's leaders, preferential treatment at the Suez Canal, and rights of overflight at a strategic location benefit the Pentagon.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters and AP
LEFT: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, August 19. RIGHT: A file photo of Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah al-Sissi.

The US military aid that the Pentagon has been providing to Egypt hasn’t appeared, at least ostensibly, to have translated into a great deal of influence, as the violent crackdown on protesters continues.

As the Obama administration contemplates cutting off the $1.6 billion in mainly military funds that it gives to the country annually, what, precisely, does the Pentagon get out of the relationship?

For starters, there is some access in the form of near-daily calls between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sissi.  

“They answer the phone calls. They talk to us. They don’t necessarily do what we want them to do, but Hagel is on the line to General Al-Sissi every day and no one else can do this,” says Robert Springborg, professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School of International Graduate Studies in Monterey, Calif. 

This, in turn, gives the US military “a far greater idea of what’s going on there than any other actor in the western world,” he adds.

But what is the point of being able to get the general on the line if the Egyptian military doesn’t appear to be listening, instead forging ahead with the use of force against civilians? 

In exchange for US military aid, the Pentagon may not be able to convince Egypt to act the way it wants, but there are some other benefits vital to US national interests, Dr. Springborg says.

The strategic location of Egypt means that it is the Pentagon’s “jumping off point for all of East Africa.”

What’s more, Egypt provides the US military with speedy access to the Persian Gulf by way of the Suez Canal.

If the US military didn’t receive preferential treatment, it would have to wait its turn in a long line behind oil rigs and give notice weeks in advance that it would like to transit the canal.

As it stands now, the US Navy is able to skip to the front of the line and, as a result, can respond to threats quickly when the need arises, Springborg notes.

Most important, the US military has rights of overflight for its fighter jets and military transport planes, which is “absolutely critical,” he adds. 

“Not having that would mean a huge problem for us,” particularly when it comes to responding to possible crises in the Gulf or East Africa.

Were Egypt to deny that right, US officials would likely not be inclined to disrespect their wishes – violating sovereign airspace is, after all, an act of war. 

Yet not only would such an outcome be inconvenient and potentially strategically damaging, it would also be expensive. “It would cost us a vast amount to deal with that problem,” Springborg says.

It’s a point of which the Egyptian military is well aware. 

“They are in the most strategic location in the Middle East – and they use it,” he adds. “And we pay for it.” 

Even after a series of daily phone chats with his counterpart, by Monday, Hagel acknowledged, “Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited.” 

Instead, he offered, “It’s up to the Egyptian people. They are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility to sort this out.”

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