The Generals Who Rule Egypt: How They Get Along With Washington

Once above the fray, the military is now the target of criticism in Egypt. But SCAF seems to know how to talk to Washington

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Egypt's new president-elect Mohamed Morsi (front-L) walks with Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Yusef (C) during their meeting in Cairo on June 26, 2012. Egypt's first civilian president, and its first elected leader since an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak early last year, pushed ahead with selecting a government of mostly technocrats amid delicate negotiations with the ruling military on its future powers

Abby Hauslohner and I have this week’s cover story on the Egyptian military and who’s really in control of the North African country. Mohamed Morsy may have won the election, but a committee of 19 generals have retained most of the power for themselves. Given that they are basically functioning as the de facto parliament, have stripped the executive branch of much of its power and, most analysts say, also control the courts, they are without question the most powerful institution in Egypt right now. In the story, we pull back the curtain a bit on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Egypt’s military is very different from the U.S. armed forces. It has traditionally played a much more powerful role in Egyptian society while trying to seem above the fray. For example, in addition to external security SCAF also has the responsibilities of the National Guard, stepping in to deal with natural or man made crises; at the same time officers are barred from voting and live often in cloistered suburbs built just for them. “No one knows these guys because they’ve always felt if the military gets involved in the politics of country, it gets corrupted,” says Graeme Bannerman, who was the generals’ consultant in DC for nearly 20 years before retiring in 2005.

So, who make up the SCAF? There is a core of 19 generals led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 76, Egypt’s top military commander and defense minister since 1991, appointed by now-deposed president Hosni Mubarak. The members of SCAF are the heads of the military branches, air force, navy, infantry, plus the regional generals who form the backbone of Egypt’s defense, as well as the head of military intelligence. Tantawi has recently added a few advisers, so often the number is reported to be 36, but the additions are temporary and have been brought in for their expertise in law, politics and the economy, subjects the generals feel they need advice on since assuming power after the fall of Mubarak in February 2011. Tantawi has fought in four wars and was trained by the Russians back before the 1978 Camp David accords drew Egypt into America’s sphere of influence. Like all officers since Egypt’s second President Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy in the early 1950’s, Tantawi, born in Nubia, comes from a simple middle class family; one of his parents is said to have come from Sudan.

The second in command is SCAF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Anan, 64. Anan was also trained in Russia, but has since forged close ties with the U.S. After that the two most popular generals in Washington are General Mohamed Said El-Assar and General Fouad Abdul Halim, who run annual “white paper” visits to Washington. Like Tantawi and Anan, they speak English. El-Assar went so far as to do a C-SPAN interview on his last visit last year. Abdul Halim is considered Egypt’s top expert on military aid with an ability to recall off the top of his head minute details of the funding. “It’s almost like they understand Washington politics better than Egyptian politics,” says a senior Senate staffer who has worked with the generals for years. “It’s fascinating the extent to which they are following legislation and what the Washington Post editorial board is saying about the process.”

The white paper trips tend to involve a lot of lobbying for Egyptian priorities. The generals also read the papers carefully and respond in person to lawmakers’ comments they’ve seen over the year and want to dispute or clarify. They also have a presentation with slides that they give to lawmakers, U.S. officials and policy wonks–though the show did not always have cutting-edge graphics. About three years ago, Jon Alterman, an Egypt expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, received such a briefing from the generals. He noticed that the slides had been done in Word Art, the most basic and elementary graphics program available on Windows. Later, he pulled the general aside and told him his presentation might be more effective if he upgraded to PowerPoint. The general looked abashed and replied Tantawi himself approved the slides and this was the program with which he was familiar. “Fourth graders think Word Art is very cool,” says Alterman. “Grown ups generally don’t use Word Art, especially those with a $1.3 billion annual military budget.”

“The generals used to always ask for upgrades to the weapons as part of the package. They were always looking for an improvement and we usually had to say no, mostly due to qualitative edge pledge to Israel not to sell more advanced arms to Egypt,” says Joel Rubin, Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at The Ploughshare’s Fund and a former State Department Egypt desk officer. “There was this dynamic with the generals where they sort of play a long game. They never wanted to create an adversarial relationship with us but they never wanted to take no for an answer. So there was a continual massaging.”

Behind the scenes, the Pentagon has quietly been pushing the generals to step backfrom the political process in Cairo. In the past week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Tantawi and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey spoke with Anan twice last week ostensibly to discuss the subject. The White House in a statement commending the election results, thanked the generals “for their role in supporting a free and fair election, and [the President looks] forward to the completion of a transition to a democratically-elected government.”

Given that 75% of SCAF was trained in the U.S., the Pentagon’s advice is generally listened to. That said, the generals are a proud group and don’t take well to others meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. Last year they risked Congress shutting off all U.S. aid when Egypt brought charges against U.S. democracy groups illegally operating in the country and briefly barred the head of one of those groups, Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country. “I think they’ve been extremely uncomfortable in running things and being in the public eye all this time,” says Robert Springborg, a profesor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif, who has taught dozens of Egyptian officers. “At the same time they have no intention of allowing civilians to have any say in military budget or any military interests.”

But SCAF has a large number of apologists in Washington. David Dumke, a former lobbyist to the generals for five years who has remained close with them, was in Cairo a few months ago just after the first round of presidential balloting. The generals, he said, viewed the election with a kind of gallows humor. And they were even joking about how they were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Morsy wins, everyone’s going to accuse us of cutting a deal with the Brotherhood; if [former prime minister and retired air force commander Ahmed] Shafik wins we’ll be accused of reviving the old regime,” he recalls them joking. “They know this isn’t the best position, for them to be out front,” Dumke says. But until they truly empower a civilian government, out front is where they will remain for the foreseeable future.