Two months after the military ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, U.S. officials are still trying to figure out just how much leverage they have to influence events in the largest Arab nation.
The assessment comes as Egypt’s interim leaders say they are pressing ahead to set up a transition to civilian rule and as Washington is reviewing the level of its aid package to Cairo.
The army deposed Morsi, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, on July 3, a year after he assumed the presidency in the nation’s first democratic election. The ouster came three days after millions of Egyptians took to the streets protesting the way he ran the country.
Robert Springborg, Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, says the Egyptian military is well regarded by the population.
“It’s far and away the most popular institution in the country,” Springborg said. “Public opinion polls have consistently revealed approval of the Egyptian military in excess of 80 percent and intermittently above 90 percent. No other institution comes close to it.”
Springborg says Egypt’s military is the eleventh largest in the world and the fourth largest customer of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets. It also has more than 4,000 main battle tanks, mostly American made.
It is a huge military by developing world standards, but Springborg says its quality is not very good.
“It has crashed more F-16s than any other operator of them,” he explains. “The training of its pilots is inadequate. Much of the armor that is very expensive for it, including the M1-A1 tanks, has actually never been used – it’s in storage.
“The training of tank crews is very poor. The Egyptian military continues to depend on the United States for maintenance, logistics and training,” Springborg said. “So it’s in some sense a paper tiger. It’s large on paper but in reality, it doesn’t have a lot of punch.”
Each year, the United States provides $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. But some U.S. lawmakers are now pressing for an end to that aid because of Morsi’s ouster. The Obama administration says only that it is reviewing its aid to Egypt.
Jeffrey Martini, an expert on civil-military relations in Egypt with the RAND Corporation, says a number of Arab Gulf states have offered to make up for any shortfall that would come from the U.S. limiting the flow of aid.
“Those countries have already pledged $12 billion – so roughly about 10 times what we give in aid to Egypt,” Martini said. “Now there is a nuance here, which is what the United States provides, cannot entirely be compensated for – we are still the supplier of choice for the Egyptian military.
“And Saudi Arabia can send plenty of petro-dollars to Egypt,” he continued, “but it can’t supply them with the M1-A1 tanks, the Apache helicopters and the F-16s, nor the spare parts and the maintenance that they require.”
Preserving their power
Even so, many experts still say despite the strong ties between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, Washington really has little leverage to influence events inside Egypt.
“Every state operates to advance what it sees as its strategic interest. We should not apologize for that, just as Egypt shouldn’t apologize for that,” Martini said. “At the next levels, leaders will make decisions that preserve their power. And the military sees defanging the Muslim Brotherhood as very much in its interest – and they are going to pursue that with or without American aid.”
Springborg of the Naval Postgraduate School says Washington also has another way to influence Cairo – through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, or IMF.
“Egypt is ultimately going to have to get an IMF loan to be sanctified as credit worthy to access international credit markets and to become a source of foreign direct investment from beyond the Arab Gulf,” Springborg said. “And the United States really holds the trump card in that area. If the United States deems Egypt not to be worth risking IMF or other monies on, then Egypt has very serious problems indeed.”
But Springborg says U.S. leverage has to be used very carefully because “it would stimulate a backlash if it is done crudely.”
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