The Obama administration’s first reaction to Sunday’s news that Egypt’s military chiefs had been forced from office was deep alarm. The surprise announcement from Cairo seemed to signal that Washington’s worst fears about the direction of the Egyptian revolution were coming true.
Political developments in Egypt during the past year have occurred at a speed that has often overwhelmed U.S. policymakers. The one constant seemed to be the military and its longtime chief, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. His dismissal increased concerns about how much leverage Washington would retain as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi consolidated power.
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.”
So far, the administration has dealt gingerly with Morsi’s government, determined not to allow any bumps to become roadblocks.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was taken aback when thousands of Christians protested outside her hotel during a recent trip to Cairo. The demonstrators charged that the United States had abandoned them to an Islamist government.
“They wonder, understandably, will a government looking explicitly to greater reliance on Islamic principles stand up for non-Muslims and Muslims equally?” Clinton said after her return. “Since this is the first time that Egypt has ever been in this situation, it’s a fair question.”
“As I monitor what is happening in Egypt,” Clinton said, “I am conscious of how challenging it is to get off on the right footing.” Morsi and the Brotherhood have made “commitments about the kind of inclusivity that the government would represent. . . . We are waiting to see how that gets translated into action.”
During a visit to Cairo on July 31, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was less tentative. “I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man,” Panetta said, “and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people.”
Panetta praised what he called the “very good relationship” between Morsi and Tantawi, adding that they were “working together towards the same ends.” Less than two weeks later, the defense chief was gone.
Despite its optimistic public assessment, the Pentagon was still struggling to make sense of the removal of the top brass. “I don’t think we have a read yet on what this all means,” said a senior military official who is among those analyzing the new appointments. “But there isn’t a lot of concern at this point.”
Officials stressed Sissi’s long working relationship with the United States in his previous post as director of military intelligence. A member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Sissi participated in negotiations with Washington over equipment and technology covered by the annual $1.3 billion U.S. aid package.
The only red flag in his thin public record is Sissi’s acknowledgment that military officials conducted “virginity tests” on female demonstrators during the revolution. Sissi told human rights activists that the tests were carried out so women could not claim to have been raped while interrogated. Sissi has acknowledged, the administration official said, that the tests were a mistake.
Other new appointments were similarly greeted with relief, a reaction U.S. officials said was largely shared by Israel. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, named Sissi’s deputy, has also been deeply involved in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
The administration is anxious to strengthen its relationship with Sissi in the coming weeks. Charting a collaborative plan to restore order in the restless Sinai peninsula, which Washington has come to see as a dire threat to Israel, will probably be at the top of the agenda. More broadly, the United States is likely to press Sissi over time to shift the focus of Egyptian military leaders from heavy armor and war plans toward a more nimble and flexible force.
Panetta expected to speak with Sissi “very soon,” the senior defense official said. The Pentagon, he said, “has been in discussions [with Egypt] about ways to increase information-sharing on a variety of issues and ways of cooperating even more.” although no new programs have been agreed on.
“We don’t see it” as a turning point, this official said of Egypt’s new military leadership. “It’s not surprising that a new government would come in and want to install its own leadership. That occurs in governments around the world.”
Ernesto Londoño in Cairo and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.