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Generals and patrons: The American-Egyptian military

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The US's cozy relationship with Egypt's military should be reexamined.


As the situation escalates into a full-fledged confrontation between the Egyptian military and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Washington is once again playing catch-up with its own clients.


Happy to see the back of the Islamists, the US administration refrained from referring to the military overthrow of President Morsi as a coup even when influential members of Congress recognised it as such.


The Obama administration wanted the coup to work; it did not want blood on its hands. But if they hoped to appease and influence the military, they were wrong.


The generals adamant on containing, if not breaking the Brotherhood, saw the political challenges facing Egypt as security problems that require the use of force.


They imposed emergency laws that allows more control, but in reality it led to more escalation.


As they prepared to publicly crackdown on Morsi's supporters through force, Washington remained largely silent.


US calls for restraint, dialogue, and a return to the ballot box seemed more rhetorical than practical or effective.


America's eagerness to maintain a close relationship with the military and remain relevant in the country has prevented it from taking a clear stand.


Investing in the Egyptian military


Egypt is a "major non-NATO ally" with the military to military liaisons at its core. Egypt's military relationship with the West took off after the 1979 Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt, rendering Egypt the second-largest recipient of its bilateral assistance after Israel.


This required, among others, a major military and financial investment that totalled $66bn since the peace treaty. The American wooing of the Egyptian generals has cost the US $1.3bn a year since 1987.


Heavy-duty gifts like 1,000 tanks and 221 fighter jets worth billions signified the US's commitment to Egypt.


In 2011 - the year of the revolution - Egypt received almost a quarter of all of America's Foreign Military Financing funds.


The American-Egyptian courtship has resulted in, among many things, an Americanized Egyptian defense force.


Over 500 Egyptian officers benefit from the American military education system every year. These include top Egyptian officers, including the country's defense chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who went to the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, as well as the commander of the Air Force, Reda Mahmoud.


The education stints of the Egyptian officers in US military colleges, the training programs, and the joint military exercises have led to enduring ties between the establishments of both countries.

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Two positions add to one


The question then is, with the Egyptian military having been an acutely embarrassing partner of late - what was Washington supposed to do?


Should it have presented it with an ultimatum? Cut aid, after years of lavishing the military with significant funds?


The conventional wisdom among the Middle East policy establishment, especially those allied with Israel is that Washington needs to maintain a close relationship with the military at all times.


Some claim that the Egyptian military is an indispensable and reliable ally in a sea of turmoil, and supporting it serves US national security interests. For them, the emerging civilian forces - popular as they may be- whether Islamists or secular - are neither reliable nor friendly.


Others argue that refraining from criticising the generals allows Washington to exercise some degree of influence over their decision-making.


Washington's newly appointed Middle East "peace envoy", Martin Indyk, argues that the US should be communicating with the military of the Arab world's "largest, militarily most-powerful, culturally most-influential, and geostrategically most-important country" through private channels, and not work against it.


Reversing roles


Some within the minority of the Washington establishment advocate severing relations with the Egyptian military if it doesn't refrain from violence. They see any perceived complicity between the US and the authoritarian Egyptian military to be harmful for US interests in the long-term, especially since it allows for a backlash among Islamists in the region.


But it seems far-fetched that this warning would be heeded in Washington. Would freezing aid make sense at a time when the US is fast losing its relevance in the region?


Already losing its leverage and influence, notably regarding the dramatic events taking place in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the region in general, Washington is not about to give up one of its few strategic pillars in the Middle East.


The Egyptian military is privy to all of this and understands all too well its own utility for the US in the region.


For example, what if Egypt chooses to be the one to walk out? I reckon there would be major panic in the American capital and no less in Israel.


After all, isn't Egypt what helps America maintain stability in the region and help preserve Israel's security ?


The way forward…

Washington would've liked to see the generals refrain from violence, empower the civilian government, allow for a quick return to the democratic process, and eventually return to the barracks.


But the US did not voice its opinion loud enough, and didn't make it clear to the generals that failure to heed their advice has consequences.


As the spiral of violence gets underway on Egypt's streets, America needs to show the value of its leverage over Egypt's military.


The White House statement and Secretary of State's condemnation of the violence is hardly a good start. Everyone has condemned the violence; even the Egyptian generals!


Neither pillow talk in private nor regrets in public are useful to stop the escalation.


True leverage over a client starts with America telling the Egyptian generals: end the emergency law, stop the violence and allow a return to the ballot box. Or else.


Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera's senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.


Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Cairo massacre: After today, what Muslim will ever trust the ballot box again?

This marks a tragic turning point, from which it will take Egypt years to recover


The Egyptian crucible has broken. The “unity” of Egypt – that all-embracing, patriotic, essential glue that has bound the nation together since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and the rule of Nasser – has melted amid the massacres, gun battles and fury of yesterday’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. A hundred dead – 200, 300 “martyrs” – makes no difference to the outcome: for millions of Egyptians, the path of democracy has been torn up amid live fire and brutality. What Muslim seeking a state based on his or her religion will ever trust the ballot box again?

This is the real story of today’s bloodbath. Who can be surprised that some Muslim Brotherhood supporters were wielding Kalashnikovs on the streets of Cairo? Or that supporters of the army and its “interim government” – in middle-class areas of the capital, no less – have seized their weapons or produced their own and started shooting back. This is not Brotherhood vs army, though that is how our Western statesmen will mendaciously try to portray this tragedy. Today’s violence has created a cruel division within Egyptian society that will take years to heal; between leftists and secularists and Christian Copts and Sunni Muslim villagers, between people and police, between Brotherhood and army. That is why Mohamed el-Baradei resigned tonight. The burning of churches was an inevitable corollary of this terrible business.


In Algeria in 1992, in Cairo in 2013 – and who knows what happens in Tunisia in the coming weeks and months? – Muslims who won power, fairly and democratically through the common vote, have been hurled from power. And who can forget our vicious siege of Gaza when Palestinians voted – again democratically – for Hamas? No matter how many mistakes the Brotherhood made in Egypt – no matter how promiscuous or fatuous their rule – the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the army. It was a coup, and John McCain was right to use that word.


The Brotherhood, of course, should long ago have curbed its amour propre and tried to keep within the shell of the pseudo-democracy that the army permitted in Egypt – not because it was fair or acceptable or just, but because the alternative was bound to be a return to clandestinity, to midnight arrests and torture and martyrdom. This has been the historical role of the Brotherhood – with periods of shameful collaboration with British occupiers and Egyptian military dictators – and a return to the darkness suggests only two outcomes: that the Brotherhood will be extinguished in violence, or will succeed at some far distant date – heaven spare Egypt such a fate – in creating an Islamist autocracy.

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The pundits went about their poisonous work today before the first corpse was in its grave. Can Egypt avoid a civil war? Will the “terrorist” Brotherhood be wiped out by the loyal army? What about those who demonstrated before Morsi’s overthrow? Tony Blair was only one of those who talked of impending “chaos” in bestowing their support on General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi. Every violent incident in Sinai, every gun in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood will now be used to persuade the world that the organisation – far from being a poorly armed but well-organised Islamist movement – was the right arm of al-Qa’ida.


History may take a different view. It will certainly be hard to explain how many thousands – yes, perhaps millions – of educated, liberal Egyptians continued to give their wholehearted support to the general who spent much time after the overthrow of Mubarak justifying the army’s virginity tests of female protesters in Tahrir Square. Al-Sisi will come under much scrutiny in the coming days; he was always reputedly sympathetic to the Brotherhood, although this idea may have been provoked by his wife’s wearing of the niqab. And many of the middle-class intellectuals who have thrown their support behind the army will have to squeeze their consciences into a bottle to accommodate future events.


Could Nobel Prize-holder and nuclear expert Mohamed el-Baradei, the most famous personality – in Western eyes, but not in Egyptian - in the ‘interim government’, whose social outlook and integrity looked frighteningly at odds with ‘his’ government’s actions today, have stayed in power? Of course not. He had to go, for he never intended such an outcome to his political power gamble when he agreed to prop up the army’s choice of ministers after last month’s coup. But the coterie of writers and artists who insisted on regarding the coup as just another stage in the revolution of 2011 will - after the blood and el-Baradei’s resignation – have to use some pretty anguished linguistics to escape moral blame for these events.


Stand by, of course, for the usual jargon questions. Does this mean the end of political Islam? For the moment, certainly; the Brotherhood is in no mood to try any more experiments in democracy – a refusal which is the immediate danger in Egypt. For without freedom, there is violence. Will Egypt turn into another Syria? Unlikely. Egypt is neither a sectarian state – it never has been, even with 10 per cent of its people Christian – nor an inherently violent one. It never experienced the savagery of Algerian uprisings against the French, or Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian insurgencies against both the British and the French. But ghosts aplenty will hang their heads in shame today; that great revolutionary lawyer of the 1919 rising, for example, Saad Zaghloul. And General Muhammad Neguib whose 1952 revolutionary tracts read so much like the demands of the people of Tahrir in 2011.


But yes, something died in Egypt today. Not the revolution, for across the Arab world the integrity of ownership – of people demanding that they, not their leaders, own their own country – remains, however bloodstained. Innocence died, of course, as it does after every revolution. No, what expired today was the idea that Egypt was the everlasting mother of the Arab nation, the nationalist ideal, the purity of history in which Egypt regarded all her people as her children. For the Brotherhood victims today – along with the police and pro-government supporters – were also children of Egypt. And no one said so. They had become the “terrorists”, the enemy of the people. That is Egypt’s new heritage.

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