Anti-government protesters offer their evening prayers in front of an Egyptian army tank securing the area during a protest Monday in Cairo's Tahrir Square. A coalition of opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo's streets Tuesday to demand the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Anti-government protesters offer their evening prayers in front of an Egyptian army tank securing the area during a protest Monday in Cairo's Tahrir Square. A coalition of opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo's streets Tuesday to demand the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
How Egypt's military handles the thousands of protesters marching Tuesday through the streets of Cairo could decide the country's future. Egypt's military for the past three decades has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid and even sends its most promising officers to study in American war colleges. Yet for all that, it's not at all clear whether the U.S. has leverage with Egypt's military leadership.
When he ran the Army War College a decade ago, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales got to know the future leaders of the Egyptian military.
"The Egyptian military has been very careful to send only the best and the brightest and the most promising officers to American schools," he said.
Today, most of the American military schools — from West Point in New York to National Defense University in Washington — have an Egyptian officer sitting in the classroom. Right now, one is even on a class trip to San Francisco.
Those relationships, Scales said, build what he calls enormous influence with Egypt, "not just because of the schools, but because of almost 30 years of intimate contact from exercises to the sale of military hardware like M1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets."
That's hundreds of F-16s and plans for 1,200 M1 tanks as part of the more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid Egypt gets every year.
So it wasn't unusual last week that the top Egyptian officer, Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, was in Washington for talks with his Pentagon friends. When Egypt descended into chaos, Enan cut his visit short. Later, the top U.S. officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, called the Egyptian general and pledged to continue the strong relationship between the two countries.
But Jon Alterman, who runs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon may be kidding itself if it thinks there's a special bond.
"The Egyptians have been very careful not to allow tight relationships between the U.S. and Egyptian officers to develop, some would argue to prevent a pro-American coup in the military," Alterman said.
There's a history of coups: The military toppled the government a half-century ago, and President Hosni Mubarak was an air force general.
In the face of mounting protests, Mubarak has tried to pull the military closer to him. He has reshuffled his Cabinet and placed senior Egyptian generals in top positions.
Alterman said the U.S. can do little more than watch the unfolding revolt.
"I don't think there's anything the U.S. can do that's really decisive in terms of what's happening on the streets in Egypt or in terms of determining how the Egyptian government views what's happening on the streets," he said. "It seems to very much have its own momentum."
That momentum has surprised the young Egyptian military officers in the classrooms at National Defense University, a short distance from the White House.
"They were watching with everybody the news and could not believe what was going on and how fast it went," said Gawdat Bahgat, an Egyptian who teaches national security at the university.
He said the class of international officers spent an hour talking about events in Egypt, but the Egyptian officers had little to say and echoed the government line.
"They work for the government and they see it from the government's perspective, so to some extent I understand," he said.
Alterman said what's unknown is what role these and other younger officers will play in the growing crisis.
"The 1952 coup was made by colonels, and we have no idea where the colonels are in any of this," he said.
So far, Alterman said, the colonels haven't had to make a choice.