Thu February 3, 2011
Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt

Will U.S.-Egypt Military Ties Remain?

The decades-long military relationship between the U.S. and Egypt benefits both countries.

Egypt gets everything from tanks and fighter jets to warships. The U.S. gets fly over-rights, desert training exercises and expedited passage for its naval vessels through the Suez Canal.

Now questions abound as to whether the Egyptian military will emerge from the ongoing crisis unscathed and whether a new Egyptian government would maintain this close military-to military-relationship.

U.S. Arms in Egypt

The military weapons and gear on the streets of Cairo have one thing in common.

"All the people picking up tear gas canisters that said Made in the USA. And the jets that fly overhead that buzz the crowds are American F-16s," says Gary Sick, who worked on Middle East issues for three presidents at the National Security Council — and now teaches at Columbia University. "That sends a particular message on where the United States stands on this whole thing."

The United States is the major arms supplier to Egypt — more than one billion dollars each year from the American taxpayer. That pays for a full 80 percent of the weapons Egypt buys from American companies like General Dynamics.

And there's more. Egypt gets hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus American military equipment.

Larry Velte, of National Defense University, says that includes everything from two Navy frigates to helicopter spare parts.

"Apache helicopters, which may not, these days, be state of the art modern but they're better than the Russian models that they had," says Velte.

The Russian ones they had until the mid 1970s. That's when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat turned his back on the Soviets and reached out to the Americans.

U.S. Benefits

Sadat and his successor President Hosni Mubarak supported U.S. policy towards Israel. And Mubarak sent Egyptian troops to help the United States during the 1991 Gulf War.

"One of the things they did was to contribute a tank battalion to Desert Storm and we wanted the Egyptian military to have the capability to do that again," says Velte, "especially in the 90s when Saddam was still making trouble."

More recently, the Egyptians sent a military field hospital to Afghanistan.

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East studies professor at the University of Maryland, says the American military benefits from ties to Egypt.

"The American military has been one of the strongest advocates of a strong relationship with Egypt because they understood the benefit that accrued to them through that interactive relationship with the Egyptian military," Telhami says.

So Egypt gets tanks and fighter jets — while the United States gets a foothold in the Middle East.

"If the UN should feel a need to deploy forces at any point through the Middle East, Egypt would play a role as a staging point," says Sick.

And a staging point on the seas as well. The U.S. Navy sends an average of one dozen warships each month through Egypt's Suez Canal, a 100-mile waterway that is a key shortcut to reaching Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the U.S. gets expedited processing when its sends it nuclear warships through the canal. Other countries have to wait weeks.

So it wasn't a surprise that the top U.S. officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, called his counterpart in Egypt a few days ago, saying he was confident the Egyptian military could provide for their country's security .... both on the streets of Cairo and at the Suez Canal.

But Telhami says the security relationship between Egypt and the U.S. is one reason America is unpopular among average Egyptians.

"The U.S. directly or indirectly bolstered the very agencies in the Middle East that are seen to be the anchors of repression," Telhami says.

Still, Telhami says the relationship between the two militaries is likely to remain strong. That's because the Egyptians need those American tanks and warplanes. And the Americans need — among other things — the canal. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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