Test­ing the re­la­tion­ship

Washington urges ma­jor aid re­cip­i­ent to show re­straint in cri­sis

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY HOWARD SCHNEIDER AND GREG JAFFE schnei­derh@wash­post.com jaf­feg@wash­post.com

An anx­ious Washington watches as a U.S.-equipped mil­i­tary un­der­takes a mis­sion it wasn’t built for.

Egypt’s mil­i­tary, built with tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in Amer­i­can technology and train­ing, is fac­ing its biggest test in decades and giv­ing U.S. of­fi­cials a look at whether their mas­sive in­vest­ment has built an in­sti­tu­tion of so­cial co­he­sion or one ready to turn on op­po­nents of the cur­rent govern­ment.

Built to fight a ma­jor tank war and main­tain a de­gree of par­ity with neigh­bor­ing Is­rael, the army is be­ing de­ployed on a very dif­fer­ent mis­sion: keep­ing civil or­der in the coun­try un­der the watch of U.S. of­fi­cials who have ap­pealed for re­straint.

The ar­rival of tanks and troops in Cairo’s streets seemed to calm a tense sit­u­a­tion, sug­gest­ing that the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary will play a key role as the coun­try nav­i­gates its way out of the cur­rent cri­sis. On Satur­day, sol­diers seemed largely to sym­pa­thize with the throngs of pro­test­ers.

The mas­sive amounts of de­fense aid — which have made Egypt’s mil­i­tary one of the more ef­fec­tive forces in the re­gion and yielded a rel­a­tively sta­ble and wealthy of­fi­cer class— will prob­a­bly give the United States some crit­i­cal lever­age, Mid­dle East an­a­lysts said.

U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Egypt, which to­taled $1.3 bil­lion in 2010, has held steady in re­cent years, even as aid for eco­nomic devel­op­ment, health and ed­u­ca­tion has been cut. Aid to Egyp­tian po­lice and riot-con­trol forces, which amounted to about $1 mil­lion last year, is mi­nus­cule by com­par­i­son.

“ The mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship has been sacro­sanct,” said Jon Al­ter­man, a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “It is an im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship for both coun­tries, but it is not a re­la­tion­ship of soul mates.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion says it is hav­ing “ro­bust” con­ver­sa­tions with of­fi­cials through­out the Egyp­tian govern­ment about the un­rest. On Satur­day, Pres­i­dent Obama’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­vened a spe­cial two-hour ses­sion to dis­cuss the cri­sis.

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion has also said it might re­view aid to Egypt. Con­gres­sional of­fi­cials have cau­tioned the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary and Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak that they have a great deal to lose if vi­o­lence is used to keep the govern­ment in power.

A mis­use of force “could have very se­ri­ous con­se­quences,” said Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who au­thored a law re­strict­ing aid to for­eign gov­ern­ments that are guilty of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. “ They run the risk, if they over­re­act, of cut­ting ties with a coun­try they need.”

The United States also has much to lose if Amer­i­can-made tanks, ri­fles and he­li­copters are used by Egypt’s mil­i­tary to stop ri­ot­ers. A ma­jor crack­down with U.S. arms would al­most cer­tainly alien­ate the Eyg­p­tian pub­lic and much of the Arab world.

Egypt’s mil­i­tary, which is con­sid­ered one of the coun­try’s foun­da­tional in­sti­tu­tions, would prob­a­bly play a crit­i­cal role in man­ag­ing a tran­si­tion to a new govern­ment if Mubarak was forced from power.

Egyp­tian Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the chief of staff of Egypt’s army, was at the Pen­tagon late last week for sched­uled talks on se­cu­rity as­sis­tance and up­com­ing joint train­ing and ex­er­cises. The talks were led by Alexan­der Ver­sh­bow, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs, who urged re­straint in deal­ing with the un­rest, a se­nior de­fense of­fi­cial said.

So far, how­ever, top Pen­tagon of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, haven’t weighed in with their Egyp­tian coun­ter­parts — a sign that most se­nior U.S. lead­ers think an ag­gres­sive crack­down is un­likely.

Be­yond the bil­lions of dol­lars in mil­i­tary equip­ment de­liv­ered to Egypt, the U.S. govern­ment has spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in the past decade bring­ing Egyp­tian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers to the United States for train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion.

Through­out the Iraq war, the United States has re­lied heav­ily on the use of Egypt’s Suez Canal to re­sup­ply U.S. forces. As ships pass through the canal, Egyp­tian forces se­cure the banks on ei­ther side. Most of Europe’s oil sup­ply moves through the canal as well.

Egypt’s strate­gic im­por­tance is also mag­ni­fied by its peace treaty with Is­rael, which makes it a key player in any fu­ture res­o­lu­tion of the Is­rael-Pales­tinian con­flict.

For its part, Egypt has ben­e­fited from ac­cess to such equip­ment as the M1 tank and the F-16 fighter. Egypt does not re­ceive ver­sions as ad­vanced as those sold to Is­rael, but these are po­tent weapons for a coun­try whose mil­i­tary con­cerns in­clude such un­likely threats as a desert in­cur­sion by Libya.

Egypt has also had the ben­e­fit of ex­ten­sive U.S. train­ing, and the devel­op­ment of de­fense-re­lated busi­nesses has helped en­rich top of­fi­cers and made the of­fi­cer corps a pil­lar of the Egyp­tian mid­dle­and up­per-mid­dle class.

But the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two mil­i­taries has not been trou­ble-free. Doc­u­ments re­leased by the Web site Wik­iLeaks re­flect sharp ex­changes in the past year be­tween U.S. and Egyp­tian of­fi­cials over is­sues that in­clude ap­par­ent vi­o­la­tions of mil­i­tary-use agree­ments. U.S. of­fi­cials, for ex­am­ple, were up­set about a visit by Chi­nese of­fi­cers to an F-16 base, and they de­manded re­as­sur­ances that U.S. technology was be­ing kept se­cure.

One State Depart­ment cable re­leased by Wik­iLeaks de­scribes a meet­ing in which Maj. Gen. Mo­ham­mad al-As­sar, as­sis­tant to Egypt’s de­fense min­is­ter, warned U.S. of­fi­cials not to put lim­its on U.S.-made air­craft and tanks in Egypt.

Ac­cord­ing to the cable, dated in Fe­bru­ary 2010, As­sar “noted that the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary pre­ferred to pur­chase its weapons and ar­ma­ments from the United States, but that Egypt’s na­tional se­cu­rity was a red line and they could go else­where if they had to.”

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