Yesterday, the Egyptian military gave the government of President Mohamed Morsy an ultimatum: give the millions of people protesting at least some of what they want by July 3 or be gone. Today, the military said that if it takes over, it will suspend the Egyptian Constitution and dissolve the Islamist-led parliament, according to Reuters.
Oddly enough, this might be good news for the Pentagon, which largely built the modern Egyptian armed forces. In fact, the Egyptian Army -- as the entire military is colloquially known there -- may be one of the U.S. government's best friends in the entire Arab world. American presidents have been encouraging stability in the region for more than 30 years by making the Egyptian military the muscle behind a regional superpower -- one built and trained by Washington.
In addition to buying Egypt weapons like 1,200 M1 Abrams tanks and hundreds of F-16 fighter jets, the United States spends millions of dollars annually to train Egyptian troops in war games in the Middle East. Egypt's current defense chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is an alum of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania while the head of Egypt's air force, Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, did a tour in the United States as a liaison officer, and the recently retired head of the Egyptian navy, Mohab Mamish, did a bunch of tours in the United States . Their cases are hardly unique; more than 500 Egyptian military officers train at American military graduate schools every year. There's even a special guesthouse on T Street in northwest Washington, D.C., where visiting Egyptian military officials stay when in the American capital.
All this gives the United States quite a bit of leverage when it comes to the Egyptian military, one of the most powerful forces in Egyptian society. (Some estimate that up to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy is controlled by the military.)
Two years after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted by popular protests (aided by the military), U.S. President Barack Obama has continued the most generous of traditions, asking Congress for $1.3 billion in military aid to give to Egypt in fiscal year 2014. The United States has delivered that sum of money to Egypt every year since 1987. This means that Egypt receives more military aid from the United States than any nation other than Israel.
"Although there are no verifiable figures on total Egyptian military spending, it is estimated that U.S. military aid covers as much as 80% of the Defense Ministry's weapons procurement costs," according to a brand-new report on U.S.-Egypt relations from the Congressional Research Service.
Plenty of the weapons provided by the United States, from tear gas canisters to Abrams tanks, ended up on the streets of Egypt in 2011 in the Egyptian armed forces' halfhearted attempt to quell the anti-Mubarak protests.
Still, the last time Egyptians took to the streets to remove their head of state, the military ended up backing the masses -- a move that helped lead to Morsy and his political party, the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, taking power one year ago.
For now, the military and the Egyptian protesters appear united, with the throngs cheering military choppers as they flew overhead on Sunday and Monday. We'll see how close these two sides remain if the military suspends the constitution.
Another one of the potentially big problems with this scheduled coup (for the Egyptian armed forces, anyway) is that American officials are warning that such an event will automatically cause the United States to cut off all military aid.
It also remains to be seen whether the United States will actually follow through on the threat to one of its closest friends in the Middle East. The United States is barred under the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act from spending money for any "assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree, or a coup d'etat or decree that is supported by the military."
However, Reuters is quoting a senior Muslim Brotherhood politician as saying "he expects the High Committee for Elections to meet within hours to consider annulling the 2012 presidential election." Such a move may be designed to open the door for a military intervention that doesn't qualify as a coup.