In a way, Egypt is happening exactly as planned.
Ok, maybe not exactly. Another military coup may not have been what United States national security leaders had in mind when imagining the transition to democracy in the Middle East. But for Pentagon officials first and foremost concerned about U.S. and regional security, Egypt’s military is acting in many ways exactly as hoped and as the U.S. has been working toward for nearly half a century.
Sure, Egypt may look like a violent mess right now with a precarious near future, featuring clashes between its military and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. But here’s what it doesn’t look like: Syria. Or Iran. Or Afghanistan. Or Pakistan. Or Iraq.
What has 30 years of sweetening up Cairo with U.S. military and economic aid (despite human rights and strategic objections), bought America? A professionalized Egyptian military officer corps that is Western-trained, dependent on America’s defense industry greenbacks, and tied to the Pentagon by enduring friendships with senior U.S. commanders — not to mention, a ruling class that seems to have no taste for allowing the arc of Egypt to bend toward Islamic fundamentalism, much less permit a safe haven for regionally destabilizing anti-American terrorism.
Yes, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces pulled off a coup. Yes, the murky decision to open fire on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing more than 50, is more than troubling, it’s unconscionable. And yes, it all sets up potential clashes for months, if not years, to come.
But the SCAF is hardly staking out a position to take over and run Egypt on its own. By many signs, their intention is just the opposite: to hold the line, re-start Egypt’s chance at democracy and willfully hand over power — at least formally — to civilian leadership. With no ayatollahs or al Qaeda in sight, Egypt’s brass once again promised to support a process of creating a new constitution and have another go at elections within six months. By then, presumably, Western-friendly parties will be better organized to challenge the Brotherhood for seats. Meanwhile, the Suez Canal is in operation, rockets are not falling on Israel and the armed forces have not split into civil war as in Syria. And through it all, lines of communication with Washington remain open.
This month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had phone conversations with Gen. Adbul Fattah al-Sissi, chief of defense and de facto ruler of Egypt, nine times. Nine times. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who spent 20 years of his career focused on the region, also made two early calls to al-Sissi. Egyptians, Dempsey told CNN, will make their own decisions, but the important point is their leaders are listening. What’s unclear is how much they are taking the American military’s advice.
“In crisis situations, senior military leaders can reassure each other of intent, cut through staff level coordination, or even agree on rapid action,” Dempsey’s spokesman, Col. Ed Thomas, told Defense One. “But those conversations don’t happen as well or as easily without many conversations in less turbulent times. In military parlance, you can’t surge trust.”
Publicly, U.S. officials have taped their mouths shut rather than say the word “coup,” which could force the cancellation of U.S. aid and also Washington’s only real leverage. Even before the coup, in a May memo to Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry waived restrictions on aid due to Egypt’s lack of progress toward democracy. The memo was not made public until June when Reuters obtained it. Kerry wrote: “A strong U.S. security partnership with Egypt, underpinned by FMF (Foreign Military Financing), maintains a channel to Egyptian military leadership, who are key opinion makers in the country.”
Pentagon press secretary George Little treaded more cautiously in a press conference last week, saying, “Historically, the Department of Defense has had a close relationship with the Egyptian military, and we hope that, under the right circumstances, that can continue.” While Washington holds its breath, three key friends of the Pentagon — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — spoke loudly by pledging $12 billion to Egypt, according to McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef.
It’s getting complicated in Cairo. As it stands, the administration is calling on Egyptian leaders to stop the violence and come to an “inclusive” political resolution. In other words, the U.S. is asking its Arab ally to stop attacking the Muslim Brotherhood, whose very factions advocate the downfall of the U.S. and Israel. In the past two weeks, the anti-Morsi faction already has splintered from the interim government in protest over the wide powers granted by the military to the new president, Adly Mansour. Even Mohamed ElBaradei, appointed vice president, objected to the decree. After Friday prayers last week, hundreds of thousands of pro-Morsi supporters staged a counter-protest as the U.S. called on the military to release Morsi from so-called protective custody.
“We are under no illusions about the complexity of this challenge,” said Jay Carney, White House spokesman, “nor are we under any illusions about the importance of this challenge, which is why we are making clear with our partners and allies, and directly, our views about the path that we believe Egypt needs to take moving forward so that it can return to a democratically elected civilian government.”
“The alternative is chaos. The alternative is a failure of Egypt to reach its potential, its enormous potential. The alternative is sustained disappointment among the Egyptian people about the limitations placed on their own futures.”
For some, chaos is already here, thanks to a heavy-handed and unpredictable Egyptian military. Eric Trager, a Washington Institute fellow who flew to Egypt to witness the coup firsthand, agreed Egypt remains an important security partner for the U.S. in the region but said what is happening now was part of nobody’s plan, and could be alarmingly destabilizing.
“I don’t think that this was, in any way, anyone’s grand design,” Trager said. “The fact that we give $1.3 billion of aid a year to the Egyptian military and have so little insight into the decision-making of even its very top generals, suggests the failure of policymakers in Washington to use the leverage that we should have accordingly.”
Nobody seems to have real confidence how the situation will play out, much less that it will end with a stable, democratic, economically reformed and functional Egypt, Trager argued. In fact, Egypt’s military, even if well-intended in removing Morsi by popular demand to avoid violence, has stoked the tinderbox by angering the Muslim Brotherhood further.
“The military leadership knows that it has to decapitate the Brotherhood or else it will face a Brotherhood that is determined to exact revenge,” Trager explained. “It cannot give in to the Brotherhood’s demands for reinstating Morsi, because that would be suicide.” To save Egypt, Trager contends, “the military strategically will have to respond repressively. And that will be its own catalyst for instability.”
Still, the Pentagon seems confident enough in Egypt’s stability to have approved the scheduled delivery of four new F-16 fighters. For now, the bigger threat to Egypt, and the region, is the internal power struggle between the military, the Brotherhood, and the pro-democracy factions the U.S. and al-Sissi support. On Monday, the outlook for stability only grew murkier as pro-democracy leaders refused to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Ambassador Anne Patterson in Cairo.
“What I do think our policy has precluded is, yes, a military that is generally aligned in favor of American interests, and that is a very important thing in the Arab world’s most populous and historically influential country,” Trager said. “But that will not buy us stability in Egypt, because the current instability is due to a host of domestic political factors that F-16s and Abrams tanks can’t fix.”