Your Weapons Are on Cairo’s Streets, America
On the streets of Cairo and around the world, everyone’s waiting to see if the Egyptian Army is going to crack down on the demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Whatever Egypt’s military does next, chances are they’ll do it with American weapons.
Al-Jazeera showed M1A1 Abrams tanks carrying Egyptian soldiers through Cairo in what its correspondents called “a show of force.” Those iconic American tanks have been co-produced in Egypt since 1988; the Egyptians have about 1000 of them. As was endlessly re-tweeted, canisters containing tear gas that the police used on protesters — before the hated police melted away over the weekend — had “Made in America” stamped on them. (Our colleagues at Ars Technica take a look at what’s inside the Pennsylvania-manufactured tear gas.)
On Sunday, fighter jets flew low over a Cairo crowd, turning on their afterburners to deafen their audience. Most likely they were part of Egypt’s fleet of 220 F-16s.
Most of the $1.3 billion that the U.S. annually provides to Egypt in military aid goes for weaponry to defend Egypt against foreign assault, like Patriot air-defense missiles, Multiple Launch Rocket System rocket pods and TOW anti-armor missiles. That’s not particularly relevant for crowd control against protesters.
But it does speak to how close the U.S. and Egyptian militaries are. As the New York Times notes, much of Egypt’s officer corps gets educated at American war colleges. Every other year, Egypt hosts a huge multinational military exercise directed by U.S. Central Command called Bright Star, in which the U.S. and lots of its regional and European allies drill together.
All this is a peace dividend: as part of the 1977 Camp David accords that forged a durable Egyptian-Israeli peace, Egypt became the U.S.’ second largest arms purchaser. Preserving that peace is the main reason cited by U.S. diplomats and military officers why they haven’t used the arms sales to pressure Mubarak to relax his autocratic ruling style.
That’s not to say the U.S. has minimal influence over the Egyptian military. When protests exploded on Friday, Egypt’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Anan, was at the Pentagon for an annual U.S.-Egyptian parley. U.S. defense officials urged them to exercise restraint on the protesters, but the Army thus far has appeared to exhibit that on its own.
Unlike the police, Egyptian troops haven’t opened fire, even as protesters in front of them defy a government curfew. Al Jazeera has broadcasted pictures of soldiers calmly talking with people on the streets — “it’s a very relaxed atmosphere between them,” according to one of the network’s Cairo correspondents. “The people and the army are one hand!” goes one chant. There are reports of troops firing shots into the air to salute the protests.
So far. Abrams tanks and other personnel carriers are positioned near major protest areas. The “show of force” could be a sign from the Army that it’s functionally in charge, not Mubarak. Or it could be the prelude to something darker: the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid, one of Al-Jazeera’s regular Egypt commentators through the crisis, tweets that he’s heard (third-hand) that the “army will receive orders to shoot to kill tonight.”
There’s “still a question mark amongst the people and amongst the Army themselves,” reports an Al Jazeera correspondent in Tahrir Square, an epicenter of the protests. “No one’s quite sure what their role will be in shaping the country.” Whatever that role is, the U.S. has thirty years and as many billions of dollars invested in shaping the Army’s behavior.
Photo: U.S. Army
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Monday, January 31, 2011
Your Weapons Are on Cairo’s Streets, America | Danger Room | Wired.com