In Paper, Chief of Egypt Army Criticized U.S. (NY) TIMES) By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and KAREEM FAHIM 08/17/12)
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As a student at the National War College in Washington, the chief of
staff of Egypt’s armed forces argued in a paper that the American
military presence in the Middle East and its “one-sided” support of
Israel were fueling hatred toward the United States and miring it in
an unwinnable global war with Islamist militants.
The paper, written seven years ago by Gen. Sedky Sobhi, offers an
early and expansive look into the thinking of one member of the new
generation of military officers stepping into power as part of a
leadership shake-up under Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohamed
Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
His sharp rebuke of American policy is especially striking because he
now oversees the military institution that has been the closest
United States ally in the Arab world, relied on by American officials
as a critical bulwark in support of Israeli security and against
Iranian influence. Despite decades of military collaboration, he
urged a full pullout of American forces from the region.
Scholars say his paper is even more significant in part because many
of its themes reflect opinions widely held by Egyptians, their new
president and people throughout the region — an increasingly potent
factor in regional foreign policy, as Egypt and other countries
struggle toward democracy.
American officials said their confidence in Egypt was unshaken, while
analysts argued that despite the changes in the nation’s military and
civilian leadership, any realignment in relations with Washington
could be slow — in part because of Egypt’s urgent need for assistance
from the United States and the West.
“For sure there are going to be big changes in Egypt’s relationship
with Washington,” said Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the
University of Maryland and a scholar at the Brookings Institution who
has studied Arab and Egyptian public opinion.
In surveys across the Arab world for more than a decade, he said,
about 70 percent of the public has named the United States as the
second greatest threat to regional security, after Israel — even in
Egypt, where Washington provides $1.3 billion in annual military aid,
and in Saudi Arabia, another close American ally.
As General Sobhi argued, Professor Telhami said, “there were always
two central issues driving Arab and Egyptian anger with the U.S., the
Palestinian question — the prism of pain through which Arabs see the
West — and the U.S. military presence.”
General Sobhi’s paper, first reported by the Cairo independent
journalist Issandr El Amrani, offers a rare look into the foreign
policy thinking of a military institution often considered all but
impenetrable to outsiders.
For decades under President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military, and
the nation’s foreign policy, had been closely allied with the United
States and its regional interests. There was concern in Washington
after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster that the relationship might not survive —
an anxiety that was revived when Mr. Morsi was elected president.
But Washington knew that the longtime defense minister, Field Marshal
Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and his chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan,
still wielded considerable power and were reliable allies.
Then after an embarrassing terrorist attack in northern Sinai this
month, Mr. Morsi appeared to consolidate his power by announcing
their replacement, while keeping them on as presidential advisers.
The shake-up raised for the first time the possibility that Mr. Morsi
might begin to exert some real sway over Egyptian foreign policy, and
General Sobhi’s paper suggested that at least some of the younger
cadre of generals might share an interest in more independence from
In his paper, General Sobhi spells out a position that fits well with
the campaign vows of many Islamist and secular politicians in Egypt
to chart a course more independent of Washington. “If the
relationship is between equals, with mutual respect and mutual
interest, then nothing changes,” Mahmoud Hussein, the secretary
general of the Muslim Brotherhood, said this week of the Egyptian
relationship with the United States. “But if the U.S. thinks the
relationship with Egypt is of a master and a follower, then this will
Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University,
said that American policy makers would be naïve to think that the
positions held by Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood — including
criticisms of the United States and strong support for the
Palestinians — represented fringe thinking.
On those issues, “the Brotherhood is the Egyptian Kansas,” said
Professor Shehata. Their positions on foreign policy “reflect rather
than oppose what the Egyptian center is thinking,” he said.
In Washington, officials said they were unconcerned about the paper
or the broader changes in the leadership of the Egyptian military.
Top United States defense officials have said that they enjoy strong
and positive relationships with General Sobhi and his boss, the new
defense minister, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, who also studied at the
National War College in Washington.
“A lot of academic theses offer up interesting ideas that don’t go
very far, and often end up as shelf ware,” a senior official in the
Obama administration said of General Sobhi’s paper, speaking on
condition of anonymity because of the delicate point in relations
with Egypt. “This isn’t exactly causing concern. We believe we will
work well with the new Egyptian military leaders.”
Other analysts, though, argue that the defense shake-up, which
signaled an apparent consolidation of Mr. Morsi’s power, inevitably
augured a larger shake-up ahead for Egyptian relations with
Given the pressure of public opinion on democratically elected
leaders — to say nothing of the Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s history
of criticizing the United States’ Middle East policy — “it thus
stands to reason that Morsi’s sacking of Egypt’s top national
security and defense officials might in part represent a shift in
Egyptian foreign policy away from the United States,” the scholar
Steven A. Cook argued this week on the Web site of the journal
Foreign Affairs. “Toward what country, however, remains unclear.
There is no other power that could be Egypt’s patron, yet Cairo might
not need one. Egypt, representing a quarter of the Arab world and
strategically located on the Suez Canal and Afro-Asian rift — is a
power in its own right.”
General Sobhi couched his paper as an argument to American policy
makers about their long-term interest.
But he made his case by focusing on what he said were American
misunderstandings of the region, arguing that Westerners undermined
their professed support for Arab democracy with their hostility
toward the role of Islamic law in many Arab states. The push for
democracy “must have and project political, social, cultural and
religious legitimacy,” he wrote.
General Sobhi also argued that it was wrong to characterize Al Qaeda
and other militant groups as merely “irrational terrorist
organizations.” Instead, he suggested that they had tapped into
popular grievances with American policy, “becoming an international
“I recommend that the permanent withdrawal of United States military
forces from the Middle East and the Gulf should be a goal of U.S.
strategy in this region,” he wrote, adding that the United States
should pursue its objectives through “socioeconomic means and the
impartial application of international law.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from London, and Kareem Fahim from
Cairo. Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington, and
Elisabeth Bumiller from Fort Campbell, Ky. (Copyright 2012 The New
York Times Company 08/17/12)
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