U.S. military and intelligence agencies would lose vital air, land and sea assets if Egypt falls into the hands of radical Islamists, as Iran did in 1979, foreign policy analysts say.
The U.S. armed forces are entwined with Egypt’s military more than with any other Arab country’s. But if Islamists seize Cairo, as the mullahs captured Tehran, this complex relationship unravels.
“Let me count the ways,” said Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and military analyst. “They are our biggest strategic partner in the Middle East. At that point, you’ve lost your biggest Arab partner. Geostrategically, the mind boggles.”
The U.S. Navy would not be able to use the Egyptian-run Suez Canal. The 150-year-old waterway sharply reduces sailing time for Atlantic-based carriers and other warships going from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, and to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Air Force likely would lose overflight rights into the Middle East, and the Army would lose a partner in building the M1A1 tank.
“If you are talking an Iran scenario, these are some of the things that happen first,” Mr. Allard said.
Egypt receives more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid each year and uses it to buy tanks, F-16 fighters, Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons systems.
The region’s other U.S. allies sent their militaries to Egypt for an exercise known as Bright Star to practice urban warfare, air assaults and ground operations.
Egypt is the birthplace of the shadowy Muslim Brotherhood, a fraternity committed to replacing secular governments with autocrats who follow Shariah, or strict Muslim law.
Amid the ongoing protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood announced that it wants to share power with Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader who is a former head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
“If we lose Egypt to the Brotherhood, it is absolutely devastating,” said former Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who led the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “The Egyptians are a key stabilizing force for us throughout the Middle East.”
“It raises the basic question of everyday military operations,” the Michigan Republican said.
“Do they facilitate our use of the Suez? Do they frustrate, meaning to make it inconvenient, or do they downright make it impossible?”
A radicalized Egypt likely would stop hosting the scores of Egyptian officers who come to the U.S. to attend service schools such as the Army War College. The Pentagon thinking is that decades of training have helped turn out generations of commanders comfortable with civilian rule and human rights.
“Our military has benefited from the interactions with the Egyptian armed forces — one of the most professional and capable in the region,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a 2009 visit to Cairo.
“We are always looking for ways to expand these ties through education, training and exercises.”
While the Pentagon has worked to foster a professional Egyptian military, Mr. Allard said, he thinks more officers are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood today than 30 years ago. He said the country’s persistently high unemployment and poverty rates have helped the radicals recruit disciples.
“What you’ve got is a generational situation in the officer corps in Egypt,” he said. “If you had a council of colonels, it would probably be a lot more Islamists and have their own grudges against Israel and the U.S. I’m sure there are people in the officer corps, who we do not know their names yet, who have got their own generational grudges. Over time, that has become a much more troubling situation.”
The U.S. also has been working with Egyptian forces to stop the smuggling of arms into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
A Cairo run by Islamists likely would end such operations and develop close ties with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that calls for the destruction of Israel.
The importance of Egypt’s role was underscored by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, when he testified before a Senate committee as head of the U.S. Central Command.
“Egypt remains a leading Arab state, a stabilizing influence in the Middle East and a key actor in the Middle East peace process,” he said. “In recent years, however, the Egyptian government has had to deal with serious economic challenges and an internal extremist threat. …
“Egypt has played a pivotal role in the international effort to address worsening instability in Gaza. [The U.S.] continues to work closely with the Egyptian security forces to interdict illicit arms shipments to extremists in Gaza and to prevent the spread of Gaza’s instability into Egypt and beyond.”
The CIA, too, would lose a valuable partner. It operates a robust station at the U.S. Embassy as well as classified bases. The two governments exchange information on terrorism suspects.
Egypt is a hotbed of radical groups and thought. Violent cells that spun off from the Muslim Brotherhood were responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the massacre of European tourists in Luxor in 1997.
Mr. Mubarak has used his internal security apparatus to launch periodic crackdowns on Islamists.
One of the first acts by Muslim Brotherhood allies in the current crisis was to storm prisons and release accused terrorists, some of whom belong to Hamas.
“The biggest threat is that rather than having an ally in Mubarak, who has helped keep a lid on radical jihadists in Egypt at this pivotal crossroads, you may have a government that facilitates radical jihadists throughout the region and as a potential export location to other parts of the world, primarily into Europe,” Mr. Hoekstra said.
“What I worry more about, rather than impacting our ability to collect intelligence, it opens up a whole new avenue of where we would need to collect intelligence,” the congressman said. “If it becomes a base, and you’ve got a government in Egypt that tolerates it rather than having a government that may have worked with us to collect intelligence against radical jihadists, you’ll now potentially have a government that not only supports these folks, but is now a barrier to us collecting information on them.”