When President Obama strode to a podium in the White House’s Grand Foyer to call for an end to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s long reign, he showered praise on the Egyptian military for “allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people.” He spoke approvingly of troops who embraced protesters in the streets of Cairo and of Egyptian tanks covered with political banners. “Going forward, I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful,” the president said.
It’s no surprise that Obama foresees a central role for Egypt’s armed forces. With protesters and Mubarak loyalists battling in Cairo’s streets, the military leadership faces growing pressure to intervene. Supporters of the besieged leader want troops to crack down on the opposition, a step that the military has so far refused to take. The protesters want the military to persuade Mubarak to cede power immediately. With the two sides locked in a standoff after several days of bloodshed, Egypt’s senior generals hold the fate of their country in their hands.
They will also furnish a referendum on the decades-long U.S. policy of providing generous support to the Egyptian military precisely so it would play a moderating role within the country and serve as an insurance policy for American interests there. The United States has sent tens of billions of dollars to Egypt over the past 30 years, and the Pentagon brings more than 500 Egyptian officers to the United States every year for training at military war colleges. The Obama administration is about to find out whether those investments have paid off.
“If you look at why the Egyptian military isn’t pulling Mubarak’s acorns out of the fire, there has to be some connection to the long-standing and very deep relationship between the U.S. military and the Egyptian one,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former head of the Army War College. “That’s what’s responsible for the army’s reluctance to do the president’s dirty work, at least for the moment.”
Events on the ground are changing rapidly, and U.S. officials privately admit they’re not sure when—or if—the military will intervene. An Egyptian military spokesman initially said that the military would “not resort to the use of force” against the crowds in Cairo’s landmark Tahrir Square. The army largely stood aside on Wednesday as pro-government fighters attacked the crowds with machetes and clubs, prompting protesters to fight back with rocks and Molotov cocktails. On Thursday, troops began to physically separate the two sides and push the pro-Mubarak fighters out of the square, but military leaders showed no signs of preparing to take decisive action to resolve the crisis.
In back-channel conversations this week, senior U.S. officials have pressed Egyptian commanders to keep their troops from taking sides in the escalating showdown between Mubarak and the democratic uprising. Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, has spoken twice with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, largely to relay American gratitude for the Egyptian military’s conduct during what could turn out to be the initial stages of a prolonged crisis. “The chairman wanted to express his appreciation for the restraint and the professionalism that the Egyptians have been showing,” said Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesman. “They’ve been performing very well under extremely challenging conditions.”
The Pentagon has an unusually close relationship with the Egyptian military, a legacy of the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in “foreign-military financing.” Cairo has used the money to purchase enormous amounts of American armaments. Egypt flies American-made F-16 fighter jets, C-130 cargo planes, and Black Hawk helicopters. Its army drives Humvees, and its navy operates Knox-class frigates and other U.S.-made ships.
The personal relationships between members of the two forces are just as significant. Egypt was once a client state of the Soviet Union, and Mubarak and a dwindling number of his senior generals studied in Russia. But the vast majority of Egyptian soldiers have come of age since Camp David, which means that they got their formative military education in the United States. That schooling has exposed generations of Egyptian officers to American beliefs in the importance of militaries that exist to serve their citizens, not to oppress them.
When Scales was head of the Army War College in the late 1990s, he worked with a succession of visiting Egyptian officers. They generally brought their wives and children with them, and many of the families developed lasting friendships with their American hosts. When they returned home, the Egyptians routinely stayed in contact with their American military counterparts by phone and e-mail, Scales said. “We have civil-military classes in their first three weeks of school where we teach them about the apolitical nature of the American military and the connection of the Army to the people,” he said. “It’s got to rub off on them.”
A new civilian government that wants to distance itself from Washington—or an Islamist one that wants to cut ties altogether—could strain the bond between the two militaries. But for the moment, the relationship remains strong. Lt. Col. Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said that Egyptian and American officials were still planning this year’s Bright Star training exercise, which will involve about 8,000 American troops and at least that many of their Egyptian counterparts. Bright Star is scheduled for late September, just weeks after Egyptians are set to choose their country’s first post-Mubarak president. One of the leading contenders, Omar Suleiman, is a former general.
This article appears in the February 5, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.