Despite close contacts, U.S. in dark about Egypt military's views

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Despite 30 years of having a major role in training Egypt's military officers, the United States has had limited exposure to the Egyptian army's inner machinations, making it difficult, U.S. officials concede, for them to predict what it will do in the current crisis.

With President Hosni Mubarak announcing Tuesday that he'll step down this fall, the military — as the institution most identified with Egyptian nationalism — is likely to become a crucial arbiter in the outcome, especially if demonstrators continue to mass seeking Mubarak's ouster.

Pentagon officials have maintained close contact with their Egyptian counterparts in recent days, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates talking again with his Egyptian counterpart Tuesday, the second phone conversation between them in three days.

Despite those contacts, U.S. officials say their understanding of the Egyptian military — its leaders and its possible motives — is shallow. The relatively limited interaction has left the Americans without deep contacts below senior officers, who either tacitly or overtly support Mubarak.

The Americans haven't had to develop more extensive contacts because Egypt generally has obliged U.S. requests in key areas: providing tougher security along Egypt's border with Gaza, granting permission for U.S. military aircraft to fly over Egyptian territory and providing expedited passage for American military vessels through the Suez Canal. Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid from the United States annually.

"The Egyptian military has purposely remained a cipher to their American donors. This has been allowed to happen because the Egyptians have continued to do what the Americans need them to do," said Jon Alterman, the Middle East director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington.

So in this time of crisis, the U.S. doesn't have a clear view of the political beliefs of the military's majors and colonels, whether they'd support opposition groups or even, if the crisis were to deepen, whether they'd undertake a coup d'etat.

Mubarak has kept the U.S. military at a distance, giving the Americans enough contact to satisfy their needs and not much more, Alterman said.

"I don't think the United States knows the colonels, and I think that is because the Egyptians don't let them know the colonels," Alterman said.

At the Pentagon, officials have said they're impressed with the Egyptian army's professionalism and restraint in allowing demonstrations to unfold around its tanks in the streets without attempting to suppress them. Whether that restraint will continue and how the Egyptian military feels about it, however, are largely unknown.

A U.S. military official told McClatchy that the recent conversations have stayed away from suggesting what actions the Egyptian military should take. Instead, they were intended simply to receive updates on what the military has done.

"We are talking to our peers, and they are saying all the right things," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the American military's assessment of the Egyptian army.

The Pentagon refused to release any details of Tuesday's conversation between Gates and Egypt's defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, including who initiated it and how long the defense chiefs spoke.

Every president since Egypt won its independence from the British in 1952 has been from the military. Mubarak himself was the air force chief of staff during the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel. Mubarak's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, is an army general and head of the president's intelligence agency, and the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, is a former commander of the air force.

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