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Does the Obama administration have any sway over Egypt’s military?

Top Obama administration officials pressed the Egyptian military on Thursday to intervene on behalf of the activists, journalists, and protesters being attacked by groups of thugs supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as concerns grew in Washington about the military’s role and agenda. Vice President Joseph Biden placed responsibility for restoring calm in the streets of ...

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Top Obama administration officials pressed the Egyptian military on Thursday to intervene on behalf of the activists, journalists, and protesters being attacked by groups of thugs supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as concerns grew in Washington about the military's role and agenda.

Vice President Joseph Biden placed responsibility for restoring calm in the streets of Cairo squarely in the hands of Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is also chief of the country's intelligence apparatus, when the two leaders spoke over the phone on Thursday afternoon.

"[Biden] stressed that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring that peaceful demonstrations don't lead to violence and intimidation and for allowing journalists and human rights advocates to conduct their important work, including immediately releasing those who have been detained," stated a White House readout of the conversation.

Top Obama administration officials pressed the Egyptian military on Thursday to intervene on behalf of the activists, journalists, and protesters being attacked by groups of thugs supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as concerns grew in Washington about the military’s role and agenda.

Vice President Joseph Biden placed responsibility for restoring calm in the streets of Cairo squarely in the hands of Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is also chief of the country’s intelligence apparatus, when the two leaders spoke over the phone on Thursday afternoon.

"[Biden] stressed that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring that peaceful demonstrations don’t lead to violence and intimidation and for allowing journalists and human rights advocates to conduct their important work, including immediately releasing those who have been detained," stated a White House readout of the conversation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton specifically called on the Egyptian military, which had been staying neutral during the crisis, to take on a greater role.

"There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the Army, to protect those threatened and hold accountable those responsible for these attacks," she said on Thursday. "The Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists’ ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world."

There are conflicting reports about the Egyptian military’s role in the crackdown on journalists and activists. The Cable reported earlier on Thursday that Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was arrested on Thursday morning in a raid conducted by police as well as military personnel.

The reportedly direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday the military had been viewed as largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups.

Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski said that based on today’s events, the military’s neutrality is no longer intact.

"I think neutrality for the Egyptian military is really impossible in this situation. If they do nothing, that’s not neutrality; that tips the balance toward the ruling party," he said. Malinowski is also a member of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, which issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests.

The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protesters and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke on Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military’s role.

"Broadly speaking, the military has played a very important and constructive role in being a stabilizing force on the ground, particularly relative to what the situation looked like prior to the weekend," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military."

Around Washington, the Obama administration’s increasing dependence on the Egyptian military is becoming a cause of concern.

"There are reliable sources telling us that the current professional assessment in the Administration is that hoping for a military coup to kick out Mubarak is the best short-term outcome," Chris Nelson wrote in his insider Washington newsletter, the Nelson Report. "A sense coming from professionals at [the State Department is] that for all the angry rhetoric being directed at the leadership of the military, the primary emotions now at the leadership level are ambivalence and conflicting interests."

In an article on the Foreign Policy website on Wednesday, Naval Postgraduate School professor Robert Springborg argued that the military’s game all along has been to feign neutrality and protect itself as a guarantor of stability as a plot to ultimately protect the regime and thwart the drive for real democracy.

"The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration," Springborg wrote. "They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy."

For now, the State Department is not yet blaming the Egyptian military for the violence perpetrated against journalists and activists on the streets of Cairo, but did acknowledge that Interior Ministry personnel have been involved.

"There are very strong indications that this is part of a concerted effort," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday. "I can’t tell you who is directing it, but with the increasing number of instances of people roughed up, journalists’ cars attacked, offices broken into, journalists detained, these do not seem to be random events."

The true test of could come Friday, when more protests, raids, and clashes are expected.

"We are bracing for significant increase in the number of demonstrators on the streets, and with that, given yesterday’s events, the real prospect of a confrontation," Crowley said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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