National Security

Our Brothers in Arms

Will the Pentagon continue to support Egypt's military under a new Islamist government?

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.

There is $1.3 billion in U.S. aid for Egypt on the table this year, and there is no chance that Obama's Pentagon team will slow or restrict that flow. Nor is there any intention to pressure Egyptians to start buying more counter-terrorism hardware instead of conventional items, like General Dynamics' M1A1 Abrams tanks, which are still assembled here, or Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter jets. As one U.S. official put it, why pressure an ally right when you're trying to show unwavering friendship?

Time will tell if Morsy and Tantawi can build any semblance of a post-Mubarak state that embraces with the same fervor its role as regional security linchpin -- or, even better, become active pursuers of violent extremists, especially those coming from Sinai. Panetta said Egypt has security responsibility for Sinai, but in response to a question from the Egyptian press, he said there was no talk of sending additional Egyptian troops there.

In all, Panetta's visit was perhaps less dramatic than Clinton's Egyptian visit earlier this month. No tomatoes were thrown at his motorcade that we know of. But the message was clear to Egyptians -- and to members of Congress calling for aid restrictions because they are skeptical of Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood resume. The Obama administration has no intention of walking away from Egypt. 

It's a cold, security-minded approach that ignores many critics. American conservatives and liberals like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have called for ending or restricting U.S. military aid to Egypt. In Cairo, on the other hand, there are calls for the state to stop accepting the handout (much of which must be used to purchase U.S.-made weapons). 

Voices on either side, it seems, have grown tired of the other. But they are not swaying national security leaders. Last year, Congress passed a restriction that military aid to Egypt be tied to human rights, but gave Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a national security waiver option. She promptly used it. At the time, the aid money was seen as leverage to pressure the military-run government to release seven American workers from U.S.-funded democracy groups held under house arrest by the Egyptian government. But even Amnesty International said the move "forfeited" a tool for the democracy movement. Leahy has continued to press Clinton to withhold military aid. But, in Tuesday's press conference, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson said bluntly the U.S. maintains a no-strings policy.

It's Ramadan, which means -- kind of like August in Washington -- everything slows down a bit in the Middle East. The good news is that the pause may allow for more meetings like Panetta's, thereby moving Egypt toward clarity. The bad news is, like in Washington, holidays must end. For the Pentagon, what's more important than what happened on Tuesday in Cairo is what happens next.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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