The U.S. Military and Egypt

02.14.11

The U.S. Military and Egypt

02.14.11

As the unrest in Egypt subsides following Hosni Mubarak’s resignation as president it has become apparent that the U.S. military played a key role in insuring that the revolution did not become more violent. There was bloodshed and street battles but this was at the hands of Mubarak thugs and secret police acting on behalf of the administration and not the military. At certain points late into the evening during the height of the protests videos show military tanks providing cover to protesters from armed Mubarak supporters. As the new realities of a post-Mubarak Egypt unfold the Egyptian military has assumed power and has pressed Egyptians to return to work and resume a level of normalcy.

“In order to achieve security and stability of the nation and the citizens and to guarantee the continuation of production in all the country sectors, calls on the citizens and labor sectors to carry out their duties, each one in his position, with appreciation for what you have endured for a long time,” according to a communiqué released by the new government.

The crisis alludes to an underlying truth. Ties between the U.S. and Egypt have been nurtured through years of military ties between the country’s militaries which increased the likelihood that Mubarak would step down and that the military would assume power. Direct military assistance to Egypt insured that there was an open line of communication between the U.S. and Egypt. The U.S. has trained thousands of Egyptian military officers over the past few decades. This relationship allowed military officers in the U.S. to communicate directly to their counterparts in the Egyptian military.

Throughout the crises, Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked with Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to insure that the Egyptian military did not turn against the protesters. Pertaining to the wider Middle East region Secretary Gates also talked with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to keep him apprised of situations as they unfolded and of U.S. objectives in Egypt, post Mubarak.

Because events in Egypt were constantly evolving it became abundantly clear that the Egyptian military would play a key role in resolving the crises and ending weeks of protests. Interestingly the U.S. State Department was largely powerless to influence events. Traditionally the State Department would be the lead agency during a crisis of this magnitude. Further, Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conveyed to his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the U.S. desire to have the Egyptian military play a constructive role in the crises and see it resolved peacefully. According to Capt. John Kirby, Adm. Mullen’s spokesman, the chairman expressed to Lt. Gen. Sami Enan “his appreciation for the continued professionalism of the Egyptian military.” Capt. Kirby continued, “Both men reaffirmed their desire to see the partnership between our two militaries continue, and they pledged to stay in touch.”

While the weeks of protest did turn deadly for a while an anarchic situation was avoided. Estimates vary from one hundred dead according to The Jerusalem Post to several hundred according to New York based Human Rights Watch. Despite the varying figures the essential point is that the toll could have been much larger had the Egyptian military clamped down on the protesters.

Recent developments have witnessed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces disbanding the Egyptian parliament and suspending the country’s Constitution. These steps effectively have put the military in charge thereby controlling every facet of the state. In keeping with the demands made by the demonstrators, new elections have been called for in six months. To the disappointment of the protesters the state of emergency has yet to be lifted. These steps enjoy popular support among the many thousands who protested in Tahrir Square and millions of Egyptians. The larger question remains whether the new government will carry through with promised reforms.

Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, in an interview posted on Politico suggested, “The next chapter is going to be tougher than the first chapter.” The ambassador continued, “Opening up this door of change was incredibly hard, but now exploiting it to move forward to serious reform will not be easy, particularly as the military overseeing the reforms also seeks to protect its interests and role in society.”

Throughout the crises the Obama administration attempted to straddle several conflicted policy positions. At the very beginning of the crises the Obama administration had to reassure America’s traditional allies in the region that the United States would not abandon an important ally. On the other hand it had to reaffirm America’s commitment to democracy and support the democratic aspirations of the protestors. Broadly speaking the administration has been applauded by its handling of the situation but the administration publicly fumbled early in the crises. For example, Frank G. Wisner, the administrations special envoy to Egypt told a Munich conference that Mubarak was key to any democratic transition. And while the president himself was demanding immediate changes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was proclaiming that any changes in the government would take time.

From the beginning of the protests to their conclusion this past weekend the centrality of the Egyptian military was an open question. As the protests continued and the military did not act on the behest of the Mubarak government it became clear that the military was hesitant to support an administration that was viewed as weak and ineffectual.

According to an unnamed senior U.S. diplomat, “I think our sense is that the military, on balance, is still serving as a buffer between both sides, and they likely still hold the key to a peaceful transition.” With a sense of normalcy returning to Egypt the United States has been proactive in assuring its regional allies in the Middle East that its commitments to their governments are sound. Adm. Mike Mullen was scheduled to arrive in Israel for discussions with the leadership over the crises in Egypt.

The key issue remains whether this episode will alter relations between Israel and Egypt and the 1979 peace treaty. All indications are that the status quo will remain in place. Recently, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, spoke via telephone with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to express his wishes that Egypt would respect previous international agreements made by former President Hosni Mubarak.

All outward signs are that relations between Israel and Egypt will remain relatively healthy. Israel realizes that it needs to retain an important Arab ally and Egypt realizes that it must continue to act as a buffer between Israel and other Arab states that view Israel with a level of animosity. The former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, suggested in an interview that Israel “has no reason to fear” resumed tensions between Israel and Egypt and possibly war.

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