How Much Influence Does $1.3 Billion Buy the U.S. With Egypt’s Military?
With the announcement by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he will not run in the September presidential elections the protests in Egypt have reached a crossroads. Anti-government protestors may continue to voice their opposition and push for greater change – including the immediate removal of Mubarak, or wait to see if the 82 year-old President follows through on his vow to step down after serving his final seven months in office. More than likely the protestors will seek to ride their momentum in hopes the 29-year Mubarak reign comes to an end sooner rather than later.
Regardless of which way the protest winds blow, all eyes will be on the Egyptian military. After all it was the military that toppled the monarchy in 1952 and the military that has supplied the country with all four of its presidents since that time. Though not as involved in everyday political affairs as it was during the 15-year reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70), the Egyptian military has always been a crucial actor and the firewall ensuring the stability of the Mubarak regime.
It was therefore hardly a surprise that Mubarak, himself a former air force commander, chose to appoint former army general Omar Suleiman to be his vice president and another former air force commander, Ahmed Shafik, to be prime minister. These moves merely underlined the hold the military has on the Egyptian political order – a hold it is wary of relinquishing considering the power it might lose under a new government. Such power is not merely restricted to political patronage, but also comes in the form of generous retirement benefits and economic privileges such as military-run businesses.
With so much to lose the Egyptian military holds a crucial role in how the current drama plays out.
What worries government officials in the U.S. and Israel is the vacuum that opens up once Mubarak is gone. It has been the Egyptian military that has largely dictated the direction of the nation’s foreign policy over the past 60 years. Should military leadership suffer convulsions from within – say in the form of a split between the older, established officers and the younger rank-and-file – does the armed forces outlook change in ways that cause Washington and Jerusalem discomfort? Or does a new government try to clip the wings of the armed forces in order to exert tight control over them?
A point of reference to the latter can be seen in Turkey, where the mildly Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) government has gradually peeled away the armed forces’ power under the notion of promoting a healthy democracy capable of gaining admittance into the European Union.
That reference, however, is a positive one in comparison to an alternative such as Iran. There the Ayatollah Khomeini set up a parallel military force – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – to serve as the Praetorian Guard of his Islamic regime. The IRGC has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Congress. Testimony by members of the Defense Intelligence Agency to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2010 claimed that the special Qods Force arm of the IRGC provides training, arms and financial support to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah as well as Iraqi Shia militants.
Control over the Egyptian military is no small matter considering it represents the largest standing military force in the Arab world. It is also a force cultivated by the U.S.
Since 1979, following the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the U.S. has been Egypt’s primary supplier of weaponry. The scope of the Egyptian armed forces’ American-derived equipment runs from main battle tanks (M1A1 Abrams) to jet fighters (F-16) to attack helicopters (AH-64D Apache) and on into advanced, precision-guided missiles such as the air-to-air Sidewinder and air-to-surface Hellfire. This hardware comes at the expense of the American taxpayer, who via the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) arrangement provides Egypt with $1.3 billion annually, thus making the Egyptian military the second-largest recipient of such funding after Israel.
Washington’s contention is that such funding is crucial to maintaining a close military relationship with Egypt, promoting interoperability between forces should future joint operations be required, ensuring U.S. military access to the Suez Canal and over-flight routes needed to support American forces operating in the region, and as a reward to Egypt for continuing to uphold its peace agreement with Israel. Another unspoken factor is the benefit to the U.S. defense industry that comes from taxpayer-subsidized Egyptian orders of American military hardware.
In addition, the Pentagon also provides Egypt with grants under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program that sponsors the training of Egyptian military students in the U.S. Some 4,200+ Egyptian students have been trained under IMET and the U.S. military considers the program invaluable to creating closer ties between the two sides.
The presumption therefore is that U.S. FMF, IMET and other economic aid (together totaling around $1.5 billion per annum) essentially “buy” Washington considerable influence in Egypt.
But what happens if Washington is wrong and a new government opts to separate itself from the current pro-U.S. orientation of the Mubarak government?
One negative scenario is that Egypt comes under control of a leadership disinclined to continue granting the U.S. military unfettered access to the Suez Canal or maintain the peace with Israel.
Many observers are invoking the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah, noting that at the time Tehran was a leading recipient of U.S. military aid. Those weapons ultimately fell into the hands of elements decidedly unfriendly to U.S. interests. At the time of its revolution Iran had acquired through the 1970s some $17 billion worth of armaments with another $12.2 billion on order.
As for Egypt, between 2002 and 2009 the U.S. has delivered it $10.5 billion worth of arms. While careful to ensure that this weaponry is not equal in sophistication to that provided Israel, it nonetheless provides the Egyptian military with a sharp-toothed edge. It also presents Washington with the dilemma that such weaponry could eventually be turned against the Egyptian people or one of the closest U.S. allies.
Ultimately the U.S. is left hoping the Egyptian military will peacefully maintain order, help prop up an interim government, and ultimately preside over a smooth transition of power from one regime friendly to U.S. interests to another – more democratic – government similarly aligned.
Israel no doubt prefers the status quo, which has provided it with over 30 years of peace on its border with Egypt, plus the security leeway to concentrate its forces on its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria and alongside Gaza. The Israelis are also hardly likely to forget that Palestinian democratic elections in 2006 resulted in its nemesis, Hamas, emerging victorious. They understand Egyptian elections resulting in triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood may ultimately spell the end to their peaceful relationship with Cairo and that after returning the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1982 they have no land-for-peace alternative to offer up to a new Egyptian leadership. For now all they can do is wait and see and continue remaining silent for fear of damaging an outcome favorable to their interests.
Should the Egyptian military ultimately end up playing king-maker in any succession plan to the Mubarak regime, than the U.S. perception of its influence within the Egyptian armed forces will be tested.
Whether what Washington wants and the Egyptian people want, however, is another matter.
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