RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As we've been reporting throughout this program, tens of thousands of protesters are marching through the streets of Cairo. How Egypt's military handles those protests could decide that country's future. Egypt's military receives billions of dollars in American aid, and has for three decades. Plus, Egypt's most promising officers study at American war colleges. Yet for all that, it's not at all clear whether the United States has leverage with Egypt's military leadership. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN: When he ran the Army War College a decade ago, retired Major General Bob Scales got to know the future leaders of the Egyptian military.
Major General BOB SCALES (Former Director of Army War College): The Egyptian military has been very careful to send only the best and the brightest, and the most promising officers to American schools.
BOWMAN: Today, most of the American military schools, from West Point 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 says, build what he calls enormous influence with Egypt.
Maj. Gen. SCALES: Not just because of the schools, but because of almost 30 years of intimate contact between the American and Egyptian army - over everything, from exercises to the sale of military hardware like M-1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets.
BOWMAN: Hundreds of F-16s and plans for 1200 of those M-1 tanks - all part of the more than a billion dollars in American military aid Egypt gets every year. So it wasn't unusual, last week, that the top Egyptian officer, Army Lieutenant General Sami Enan, was in Washington, for talks with his Pentagon friends. When Egypt descended into chaos, General Enan cut his visit short.
Later, the top American officer, Admiral 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, says that the Pentagon may be kidding itself if it thinks there's a special bond.
Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The Egyptians have been very careful not to allow tight relationships between the U.S. and Egyptian officers to develop, in part, some would argue, to prevent a pro-American coup in the military.
BOWMAN: There's a history of coups - the military toppled the government a half century ago, and the current president, Hosni Mubarak, was an Air Force general. And in the face of mounting protests, Mubarak has tried to pull the military closer to him. He's reshuffled his cabinet and placed senior Egyptian generals in top positions. Alterman says the U.S. can do little more than just watch the unfolding revolt.
Mr. ALTERMAN: 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. It seems to have, very much, its own momentum.
BOWMAN: And that momentum has surprised the young Egyptian military officers in the classrooms at National Defense University, a short distance from the White House.
Mr. GAWDAT BAHGAT (National Security Teacher, National Defense University): They were watching with everybody, the news, and could not believe what was going on and how fast it went.
BOWMAN: That's Gawdat Bahgat, an Egyptian who teaches national security at the university. He says 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.
Mr. BAGHAT: I mean, they work for the government and they see it from the government's perspective, so to some extent, I understand.
BOWMAN: Jon Alterman, the Middle East expert, says what's unknown is what role these and other younger officers will play in the growing crisis.
Mr. ALTERMAN: The 1952 coup was made by colonels, and we have no idea where the Egyptian colonels are in any of this.
BOWMAN: So far, says Alterman, the colonels haven't had to make a choice.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.