Unrest tests Egyptian military and its crucial relationship with U.S.

The Egyptian government blocks Twitter after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo to demand an end to the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 12:07 AM

Egypt's military, built with tens of billions of dollars in American technology and training, is facing its biggest test in decades and giving U.S. officials a look at whether their massive investment has built an institution of social cohesion or one ready to turn on opponents of the current government.

Built to fight a major tank war and maintain a degree of parity with neighboring Israel, the army is being deployed on a very different mission: keeping civil order in the country under the watch of U.S. officials who have appealed for restraint.

The arrival of tanks and troops in Cairo's streets seemed to calm a tense situation, suggesting that the Egyptian military will play a key role as the country navigates its way out of the current crisis. On Saturday, soldiers seemed largely to sympathize with the throngs of protesters.

The massive amounts of defense aid - which have made Egypt's military one of the more effective forces in the region and yielded a relatively stable and wealthy officer class - will probably give the United States some critical leverage, Middle East analysts said.

U.S. military aid to Egypt, which totaled $1.3 billion in 2010, has held steady in recent years, even as aid for economic development, health and education has been cut. Aid to Egyptian police and riot-control forces, which amounted to about $1 million last year, is minuscule by comparison.

"The military relationship has been sacrosanct," said Jon Alterman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is an important relationship for both countries, but it is not a relationship of soul mates."

The Obama administration says it is having "robust" conversations with officials throughout the Egyptian government about the unrest. On Saturday, President Obama's National Security Council convened a special two-hour session to discuss the crisis.

But the administration has also said it might review aid to Egypt. Congressional officials have cautioned the Egyptian military and President Hosni Mubarak that they have a great deal to lose if violence is used to keep the government in power.

A misuse of force "could have very serious consequences," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who authored a law restricting aid to foreign governments that are guilty of human rights violations. "They run the risk, if they overreact, of cutting ties with a country they need."

The United States also has much to lose if American-made tanks, rifles and helicopters are used by Egypt's military to stop rioters. A major crackdown with U.S. arms would almost certainly alienate the Eygptian public and much of the Arab world.

Egypt's military, which is considered one of the country's foundational institutions, would probably play a critical role in managing a transition to a new government if Mubarak was forced from power.

Egyptian Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the chief of staff of Egypt's army, was at the Pentagon late last week for scheduled talks on security assistance and upcoming joint training and exercises. The talks were led by Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who urged restraint in dealing with the unrest, a senior defense official said.

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