Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will make his first visit in office to Cairo this week to meet Egypt's military chiefs, Pentagon officials working quietly for months to maintain historically close military-to-military relations say they haven't missed a beat under the new civilian rule of President Mohammed Morsi.
"We can pick up the phone, the secretary of defense, and have his counterpart who we can talk to at any time," said a senior defense official. "Despite changes in the Egyptian military and political system, that's been constant."
Hagel's visit will mark the first meeting between U.S. and Egyptian defense leaders since former Defense Sec. Leon Panetta visited Cairo in August. Panetta met the newly installed Morsi at a time when observers wondered if the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate truly would be able to take back civilian control of the country from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak's fall in the Arab awakening.
Morsi gained global notoriety under the permissive eye of Field Marshall Tantawi, who ran the military since 1991.
"He's his own man," Panetta declared of Morsi, giving the elected civilian leader an American vote of confidence. Two weeks later, on August 12, Tantawi was force to resign and Washington lost one of its most important friends in the Middle East.
In the months since Panetta's 45-minute meeting with Morsi, U.S. military officials largely have stayed quiet, as Egypt's transition endured additional violent protests in December and ongoing constitutional challenges to Morsi's authority. This week, senior defense officials revealed the Pentagon has just been quiet, not idle.
"We have very regular interaction with the Egyptian military. I just had a phone call yesterday with the deputy defense minister," said a senior U.S. defense official, who briefed reporters ahead of Hagel's departure for the region, on Friday. The official, and two additional senior defense officials in the briefing, said they are encouraged at the Egyptian military's willingness to keep close counsel with Washington.
In November, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet and Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, the J5 at Joint Staff, or director of strategic plans and policy, attended the Military Coordinating Committee (MCC) meeting in Cairo. The U.S. side asked Gen. Sedky Sobhy, chief of staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, about security on the Sinai Peninsula, where security has broken down during Egypt's transition and armed forces have cracked down on militants for attacking security officials in the region.
?According to published reports, Chollet, in addition to a member of Congress and U.S. Central Command deputy commander visited U.S. troops stationed in northern Sinai.
Showing Egypt's continued importance to U.S. strategic interests, Hagel, in his first week in office, had a get-acquainted phone conversation with Tantawi's successor, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
"It's been a very regular interaction, seamless interaction," said the senior defense official.
"We were the main interlocutor," between the U.S. and Egypt during the SCAF's temporary rule, said the defense official. "Now some of our civilian counterparts in [the Department of] State and otherwise are also dealing with the Egyptians quite intensively."
"A year ago, it was the SCAF, and it was running Egypt. Now it's proverbially gone back into the barracks. And they're very focused on supporting the civilian leadership in Egypt and not having to come into run the country again."
The official also said they are encouraged the militaries have maintained a "very open" relationship about shared security concerns -- top of which is the Sinai Peninsula's use as a base for terrorism.
"Egyptians and the Israelis have maintained close interaction in relations. Egypt played a very critical role in helping bring about the Gaza cease-fire last November. ...we still have a very open interaction with the Egyptian military on a whole wide range of issues, so there's not an issue we can't -- we feel like we can't bring up."
When Hagel visits this week, Egyptian officials will have to weigh American domestic politics, as well, which have not stopped at the proverbial water's edge. In February, the newly designated top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, called Morsi an "enemy." Not long after the Obama administration announced it would proceed with the sale of F-16 fighters to Cairo despite ongoing protests to Morsi's rule, Inhofe suggested withholding U.S. arms sales as to sway Egypt's military into ousting Mubarak's elected successor.
"Morsi has already distanced himself from the military," Inhofe said, at the time. "To me that's a first good step. And I would like to think that we could reinstate a friend - a friend in that area."
CORRECTION: This post was updated to indicate the U.S. would sell additional F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, not F-15s.
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