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What a shifting Egypt means for the U.S.

For an administration that claims there is no conflict between our interests and our values, the Obama administration has sure seemed to have a difficult time balancing U.S. interests in a stable Egypt with the U.S. values of a democratic Egypt.

The administration is in a legitimately tough position deciding how much support to continue giving an authoritarian government that has proved useful to us. But as the protests have worn on, the president, like Secretary Clinton, hit a better balance, calling on the Mubarak government to set in motion a transition to free elections. Vice President Biden was characteristically maladroit, claiming Mubarak was not a dictator and explaining that all the Egyptian protesters were seeking was "a little more opportunity." The Pentagon was characteristically calm and forward leaning, reaching out to the Egyptian defense establishment -- which is indistinguishable from the Egyptian government at its highest levels -- to urge professionalism and restraint.

The Egyptian military has already delivered on the only important near-term military request the United States is likely to make: not using force against the protesters. How might democratization in Egypt affect U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation? Short of an Iranian-style Islamic government overtly hostile to the United States, Mubarak's departure is unlikely to affect military cooperation with the United States. The United States does not actually rely on the Egyptian military for much militarily, and most of that which the United States does is very much in their interests to continue. But it could affect Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, with enormous consequences for the United States.

For military purposes, the United States relies on the Egyptian government in three main ways: 1) acting as a transit for U.S. military forces, 2) preventing Egypt from becoming a base for terrorist activity that would affect the United States, and 3) protecting Israel.

Looking at a map of the Middle East suffices to explain the importance of shipping transit through the Suez Canal. For Atlantic-based navies, it allows direct access from the Mediterranean Sea through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Air transit would be less affected given the number of alternative paths, but is still significant. The canal has been closed only twice in its history: during the 1956 British-French-Israeli attack and during the 1967 war with Israel. An Egyptian government so anti-American that it would close Suez transit to American military vessels would essentially be another Iran; while possible (the Iranian revolution became more revolutionary as it progressed), it is the extreme case. 

More likely would be an Egyptian government concerned about assisting U.S. military operations in wartime. While a closure of the canal would be complicating, it could be compensated for with time to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, bringing Pacific-based fleets into action, using overland or air transit, or operating from the Mediterranean with longer-range strikes (and over flight rights from other countries). In terms of the Suez Canal, Egypt could impose significant time and cost penalties, but would not have a chokehold on U.S. military operations.

The Mubarak government has long claimed its domestic repression is essential for preventing violent Islam from emerging as a political and military force in Egypt. That claim is about to be put to the test. Any new government acceptable to protesters would need to relax internal controls. The Muslim Brotherhood will surely see prison releases and is likely to participate in political life. Whether that results in more domestic violence is unclear; my guess is likely less rather than more if people can get redress of grievances through political means. But it could make Egypt more tempting as an operating area for al Qaeda and diminish U.S. military and intelligence cooperation in managing the problems. I think it unlikely that even a tepid-toward-the U.S. government in Egypt would limit military and intelligence cooperation on terrorism. Egypt has too much to lose should Mubarak be proved right about the magnitude of Islamist threat.

The Egyptian military remains a respected institution in the political life of the country and is unlikely to be ostracized by a new government, especially after refraining from violence against protesters. This makes a major breach between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries unlikely, and a major al Qaeda foothold in Egypt unlikely. What could easily unfold would be a slow Islamization of the military, as we have seen in Turkey.

An Islamic military would badly complicate the third way in which the United States relies on Egypt militarily, which is protecting Israel. The fundamental bargain Anwar Sadat made, strategic realignment to the West and peace with Israel, could very well come into question under a new governing constellation in Egypt, too. Israel could probably win a conventional war against Egypt, even if the United States did not begin to restrict arms transfers and military aid to Egypt (which we surely would if it reneged on the Israel peace deal). But the safe flank Egypt gives Israel and the myriad ways Egypt assists in managing Palestine would be an enormous loss.

While unpopular (some effigies of Mubarak hanged this week had Stars of David on their faces), the peace deal is both a lucrative and a strategically sound one for Egyptian governments of any but a stridently Islamist stripe. But given the concern already demonstrated by Saudi Arabia about popular revolt in Egypt, it is conceivable a new government could see value in adopting a popular policy that brought Egypt back into the Arab fold. Perhaps it could gain also Egypt more assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council states. 

But a return to conflict with Israel has significant political, economic, and military costs for Egypt. Egypt and Israel have common problems managing Palestine, limiting Iranian arms and influence, and preventing radicalization in Egypt; those commonalities have kept the peace deal. And the United States would not be without assets in negotiating with any new Egyptian government, not least the $1.3 billion in military assistance we annually provide it.

CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images

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