In ousting Muslim Brotherhood rule, the Egyptian army did what it has been taught to do for decades: Keep Cairo out of the hands of Islamists.
It is a creed imbued by its former secular presidents who first served as military officers and molded the armed forces into a pro-Western bulwark against Islamic extremism, analysts say.
It is an esprit de corps nurtured by America. The U.S. has played host to hundreds of Egyptian officers at the Pentagon’s elite educational institutions such as the Army War College and the Naval Postgraduate School. The U.S. educates and trains about 1,000 Egyptian military personnel each year.
Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s supreme armed forces commander who engineered the ouster Wednesday of President Mohammed Morsi, attended the war college in Carlisle, Pa., in 2006. In the 1990s, he was a student at Britain’s prestigious Joint Services Command and Staff College.
Robert Springborg, who has taught Egyptian officers at the naval school in Monterey, Calif., calls the Egyptian military’s culture “the creation of a sense of superiority above civilians, reinforced by privilege.”
Egypt’s two, pre-Brotherhood presidents — Anwar Sadat and the now-imprisoned Hosni Mubarak — were products of military education. Sadat joined Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officer Movement, which staged a coup 1952 against King Farouk. Mubarak led the air force under Sadat.
After the 1981 assassination of Sadat by Islamists inside the military, Mubarak worked to rid the ranks of such ideologues.
“I would thank Mubarak and, indeed before him, Sadat, Nasser and the British, to say nothing of Muhammad Ali,” Mr. Springborg said. “The tradition of the military at the core of the state is 200 years old.”
Ali, who ruled in the 19th century, is considered the founder of modern Egypt and its dominant military tradition.
American ties to Cairo have run deep ever since Sadat evicted Soviet advisers and attached his star to Washington and its military-industrial complex.
The alliance has brought to the Egyptian military some of the most powerful U.S. weapons, such as the F-16 Falcon fighter jet and the M1A1 Abrams tank — thanks to American taxpayers.
“There is first of all the fact that we provided them $1.5 billion a year, the majority of it in U.S. weapons and equipment,” said Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel who has lectured on Egyptian military’s role in society. “But there is also the fact that both its current leaders are U.S. Army War College grads. They are only the most obvious ties between military establishments that have lived, trained and worked together ever since Sadat.
“As I used to tell my students at the National War College, the instruction was vital, but the friendships formed were what shapes lives and careers.”
James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the coup underscores a fact of life in Cairo.
“The army essentially has run Egypt since Nasser’s coup in 1952, and it will be reluctant to give up its role as the ultimate arbiter of Egyptian politics,” Mr. Phillips said. “But it will be willing to step back from direct rule and operate behind the scenes.”
Concerning Gen. al-Sisi, he said, “The real question is whether there are civilian political leaders that he trusts. He also will be looking out for the army’s institutional interests and its business empire.”
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon policymaker and now a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the armed forces revolve around a class system.
“The Egyptian officer corps has always had an elite feeling,” he said. “Remember also the Egyptian officer corps is not strictly a meritocracy. You also have class differences. And therefore the military traditionally represents the older elite as well in Egyptian society, which feels that it’s their God-given right to do this sort of thing.
“We’ve got strong relations with their military, and we can work with them.”
One of the untold stories about the past year is how the military was able to resurrect its reputation among the Egyptian public, who had turned on it for its association with Hosni Mubarak.
“Our job is made easier by the fact that the military doesn’t want to be in control. Egypt is effectively bankrupt, and its financial situation makes Greece look like a Swiss bank. Hard reforms and austerity are necessary, but whoever implements them is going to become deeply unpopular,” he added. “It’s in the military’s interest, therefore, to take a page from Obama’s book and lead from behind.”
Successive administrations in Washington have made strong relationships with Egypt’s top brass a high priority.
The Washington Times reported in December that the Obama administration was continuing the flow of 20 F-16s to Egypt, bringing the fleet to 240, even as Mr. Morsi was declaring himself the country’s absolute ruler and the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the levers of government.
On a visit to Cairo in 2009, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said: “Our military has benefited from the interactions with the Egyptian armed forces — one of the most professional and capable in the region. We are always looking for ways to expand these ties through education, training and exercises.”
Mr. Allard said Gen. al-Sisi could set an example for how to deal with radicals.
“I think these guys are nationalists first and Islamic second,” he said. “I am hoping they also represent an alternative to Islamist extremism in Egypt and elsewhere.”