MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We turn, now, to one of the many foreign policy challenges facing the U.S. - Egypt, now that its military has ousted the country's elected president. We have a look at the man at the center of that takeover. His name is Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Egyptian military, and one stop in his career brought him here.

Seven years ago, he was a student at the Army War College. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the Egyptian general is just the latest American-trained foreign officer to oust a civilian government.

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TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Gen. el-Sissi stood at a military graduation ceremony recently, and talked about his ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. The army was forced to take that step, he said, in the wake of mass protests against the elected government. Here he is, speaking through an interpreter.

GEN. ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISSI: (Through interpreter) Don't think I betrayed the former president. I told him the Egyptian army belongs to all Egyptians.

BOWMAN: Half a world away, retired Army Col. Steve Gerras watched in amazement. Gary served as the general's faculty adviser at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and helped him write a paper back in 2006.

COL. STEVE GERRAS: And his paper was called "Democracy in the Middle East." (Laughing) - which is pretty relevant.

BOWMAN: Gerras and others remembered him as a fairly quiet and serious Egyptian brigadier general, not the kind of personality who would mount a military coup - although the U.S. has not called it that.

GERRAS: My conclusion was - and my inference was - wow, things must really be bad there because I just don't think he's the type of person that would, you know, pull a - not coup, apparently, but quasi-coup leader in the last 50 years. And you wouldn't picture al-Sissi. You know, you think of Saddam Hussein or you think of Gadhafi, or you think of Chavez or people like that. He's not one of those guys.

BOWMAN: The general's attitudes about America's role in the Middle East were shaped, in part, by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sherifa Zuhur is a former research professor at the Army War College. She attended the same small, local mosque with the general and his family. El-Sissi, she recalled, thought that America's war on terror was becoming a sweeping attack on Muslim communities.

SHERIFA ZUHUR: And I think that our officers, as well as many American Muslims, began to talk about a war on Islam.

BOWMAN: El-Sissi debated such issues in class with American officers but in a quiet, respectful manner, she recalled.

ZUHUR: He's the opposite of bombastic, aggressive; not a show-off at all.

BOWMAN: But Gen. el-Sissi did oust a democratically elected government. And he's not the first American-trained officer to do that. There have been others since the early 1990s; in Haiti, Gambia and Honduras. And just last year, in West Africa, Capt. Amadou Sanogo took over the government in Mali. The captain studied at several military schools, and received intelligence training at the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca, in Arizona.

GORDON ADAMS: We continue to ask the military to play a lead role here. It's a very double-edged sword.

BOWMAN: That's Gordon Adams. He's a defense analyst who worked in the Clinton administration. He says training foreign officers allows the U.S. to forge relationships that might pay off later. But it also helps build up foreign militaries as the strongest institution, one that can threaten democratic governments.

Adams says there's no U.S. civilian counterpart that can work in tandem with the Pentagon, and assist in building democracies overseas. State Department diplomats, he says, are focused on representing U.S. interests and running embassies.

ADAMS: But they are not particularly well-trained for helping other countries figure out how to govern, how to control their own militaries, how to prevent corruption. All of those are the concerns of the 21st century, but our civilian institutions here in America are not well set up to deal with them.

BOWMAN: So it falls to the U.S. military, to people like Professor Gerras at the Army War College. He recalled Gen. el-Sissi, back in 2006, telling him about the difficulties of establishing democracy; saying it would take time, and not resemble the Western model.

GERRAS: My recollection is, he thought whatever the government structure was, had to pay attention to religion. You know, he's thinking, you guys have a secular view, and that will never work in the Middle East. I mean, I remember almost that exact sentence coming out of his mouth.

BOWMAN: But Gerras said he can't say whether that exact sentence was also in the general's War College research paper on democracy. Gen. el-Sissi checked a box on a form that read: Release Only to Government Authorities.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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