x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Top Egypt general backed withdrawal of US troops from Middle East

Egypt's new second-in-command of the military has written that US troops should be withdrawn from the Middle East while any democratisation in the region should come from within and have religious legitimacy.

Egypt’s new defence minister Abdul-Fatah Al Sessi (left) meets with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Mr Morsi’s new chief of staff, Sidki Sobhi, recommended the permanent withdrawal of the US military from the region in 2005.
Egypt’s new defence minister Abdul-Fatah Al Sessi (left) meets with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Mr Morsi’s new chief of staff, Sidki Sobhi, recommended the permanent withdrawal of the US military from the region in 2005.

CAIRO // Egypt's new second-in-command of the military has said that US troops should be withdrawn from the Middle East while any democratisation in the region should come from within and have religious legitimacy, according to a paper he wrote in 2005.

General Sidki Sobhi, Egypt's newly appointed chief of staff, wrote the paper while he was studying in the United States. It offers a rare insight into the thinking of a top officer in the traditionally opaque Egyptian Army.

The generals were thrust to the fore when Hosni Mubarak, himself a former air force commander, was toppled in an uprising last year. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took charge once Mubarak stepped aside.

An Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, came to office in June and stamped his authority over the military this week by retiring the two top generals and taking back vital powers they had earlier stripped from the presidency.

Although the generals held news conferences and gave interviews when in charge, they gave little away in public about their thoughts on broader policy beyond the transition, such as the crucial relationship with the US, which gives Egypt US$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) in military aid a year and trains many officers.

"I recommend that the permanent withdrawal of the United States military forces from the Middle East and the Gulf should be a goal of the US strategy in this region," wrote Mr Sobhi, then a brigadier general studying for a Master of Strategic Studies Degree at the US War College.

He added in his concluding remarks to the 10,600-word thesis "that the United States should pursue its strategic goals in the region through socio-economic means and the impartial application of international law", in a reference to what he had earlier described as Washington's "one-sided" relationship with Israel.

He said a US military presence in the region had been used as a justification for armed struggle by radical Islamists.

Although many in the Middle East object to US soldiers being posted there, it is unusual to hear the view aired so clearly by a senior figure in the army of Egypt, a staunch US ally.

Mr Sobhi, 56, was appointed chief of staff in the surprise shake-up announced by Mr Morsi.

The army's top officer, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who served as Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years, was forced into retirement, replaced by General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

Writing in 2005, and before US president Barack Obama sought to shift US policy by reaching out to the Muslim world with a pivotal speech in Cairo in 2009, Mr Sobhi said there was "a fundamental lack of understanding and communication" between foreign policymakers from US administrations and governments in the region.

The general said one reason was US policymakers worked in a strictly secular democratic system but "the Islamic religion is strongly interlinked to various degrees with the functioning of most Arab governments and their respective societies".

He said the process of democratisation "must have project political, social, cultural, and religious legitimacy".

"In other words, this democratisation process must be of and viewed as having a purely domestic origin", he wrote, highlighting in italics the words "religious", "viewed" and "purely domestic".

He said Washington should turn to a "new Marshall Plan", mirroring the huge package of aid that helped Europe rebuild after World War Two, to regain its influence.

Mr Sobhi's thesis was posted on a US defence department website, and was highlighted by the blogger and analyst Issandr El Amrani.

The dramatic overhaul to the army was prompted by a military blunder on the Sinai border with Israel earlier this month when 16 border guards were killed by militants, giving Mr Morsi an opening to act amid public anger and grumbles among some military ranks over the army leadership.

The generals have shown no sign of challenging Mr Morsi's decision. Gen Tantawi and the former chief of staff, Lt Gen Sami Anan, were both warmly greeted and awarded medals by the president in a ceremony shown on state television on Tuesday.

One western diplomat and other observers have suggested the new commanders may have Islamist sympathies or hold conservative values. But others played down such talk, including Robert Springborg, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California.

Writing in Foreign Policy, he said the main reason for removing Gen Tantawi "was not Islamist commitment, but accumulated dissatisfaction with the field marshal's debasement of their institution and its capacities, triggered by his inept political manoeuvring".

Among the other promotions was General Mohamed El Assar appointed deputy defence minister. He has been in charge of relations with the US, one reason that may have helped his promotion as well as the fact that he spoke out early after Mubarak's ousting against the former president.