By early Monday, the administration had exhaled a collective, if perhaps temporary, sigh of relief. The newly named defense minister and armed forces commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, is well-known to U.S. officials. He had “espoused cooperation with the United States and the need for peace with neighbors,” an administration official said.
Egypt’s military establishment has indicated its acceptance of the changes. U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson spoke with the new defense minister, officials said. They emphasized that both Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan had met with Sissi on visits to Egypt during the past year.
What initially appeared to be a risky power play by Morsi is being described as a politically astute, well-managed changing of the guard. Morsi called it a “generational change” needed to pump “new blood” into the aging military command.
“He’s smart,” the administration official said of Morsi. “That’s what everyone has learned over the past several months.”
In coordinated statements, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House issued public assurances Monday that they had anticipated the changes. “We knew that a transition was coming. But we didn’t know the precise timing,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to expand on the approved statements.
Still, the level of U.S. influence with the new Egyptian government remains uncertain and hard to predict. The 2011 wintertime revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, unleashed strong xenophobia in Egypt, particularly toward Americans and Israelis. That makes the prospect of a close, collaborative relationship with the United States a political liability for any post-revolution Egyptian leaders.
The election of Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, exacerbated the challenge and raised the temperature of already nervous officials in Washington.
Asked to assess the impact of the weekend’s events on U.S.-
Egyptian relations, another administration official said it would be naive to even try. “The bottom line, the big picture, is that these guys are going through this momentous transition,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in expanding on the administration’s thinking. “There are going to be surprises and bumps in the road.”