CAIRO — It's unclear if he looked into Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's eyes, but after a 45-minute-long meeting at the presidential palace, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta felt moved enough to declare that the Muslim Brotherhood leader is "his own man." Panetta spent all of four and a half hours on the ground in Egypt; three, if you don't count time creeping through traffic. But, in Cairo, the opinion of the former CIA chief is taken very seriously, and his approval of Egypt's steps toward democracy could well be worth its weight in military hardware.
Panetta did what he came to do and heard what he needed to hear. The United States needs calm and continuity in Egypt -- for the Pentagon's relationship with the military, for a civilian government commitment to the Camp David accords, and for both to be partners against terrorism.
In his meetings, first with Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country's top military official, and then with both men -- a joint appearance that U.S. officials took as a sign of unity rather than a case of army chaperoning -- Tantawi recommitted to a peaceful transition of power to civilian control. Morsy agreed that extremism by groups like al Qaeda "must be dealt with," Panetta said in a brief press conference; and both Egyptian leaders "agreed that they would cooperate in any way possible to ensure that extremists like al Qaeda are dealt with, and that efforts are made to provide strong counter-terrorism efforts." Tantawi and Morsy also portrayed a unified front on their commitment toward democracy.
"It's my view based on what I've seen and the discussions that I've had that President Morsy and Field Marshall Tantawi share a very good relationship and are working together towards the same end," Panetta told reporters. "I was convinced that President Morsy is his own man; and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people, and that he is truly committed to implementing democratic reforms here in Egypt."
And that was the gist of it. Panetta said they agreed to work "cooperatively" and to uphold their international commitments. Defense Department aides stressed this visit by design only was a preliminary meet-and-greet with Morsy. Foreign Policy has learned that Egypt is expected to name its defense minister soon, possibly this week, but until that happens -- and a parliament is set -- grand agreements will not be possible.
It's no surprise, then, that Tantawi said all the right things. His relationship with U.S. officials goes back a long way. And though headlines pit Tantawi against Morsy, with good reason, U.S. officials do not see this situation as the beginnings of another entrenched military strongman who will give them fits, à la Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Kayani. Officials insist privately that staff-level military talks have continued, including frequently with the U.S. defense attaché. And, so far, Morsy has convinced American visitors who have passed through Cairo in July that he is an honest broker.