WASHINGTON — The officer corps of Egypt’s powerful military has been educated at defense colleges in the United States for 30 years. The Egyptian armed forces have about 1,000 American M1A1 Abrams tanks, which the United States allows to be built on Egyptian soil. Egypt permits the American military to stage major operations from its bases, and has always guaranteed the Americans passage through the Suez Canal.
The relationship between the Egyptian and American militaries is, in fact, so close that it was no surprise on Friday to find two dozen senior Egyptian military officials at the Pentagon, halfway through an annual week of meetings, lunches and dinners with their American counterparts.
By the afternoon, the Egyptians had cut short the talks to return to Cairo, but not before a top American Defense Department official, Alexander Vershbow, had urged them to exercise “restraint,” the Pentagon said.
It remained unclear on Saturday, as the Egyptian Armywas deployed on the streets of Cairo for the first time in decades, to what degree the military would remain loyal to the embattled president, Hosni Mubarak.
That has left the United States military to try to navigate a peaceful outcome and remain close to an important ally. One fear is the possibility that, despite the Egyptian Army’s seemingly passive stance on Saturday, the soldiers will begin firing on the protesters — an action that would probably be seen as leading to an end to the army’s legitimacy.
“If they shoot on the crowd, they could win tomorrow, and then there will be a revolt that will sweep them away,” said Bruce O. Riedel, an expert on the Middle East and Asia at theBrookings Institution, who predicts that in any event, Mr. Mubarak will step down.
A possible successor — and a sign of how closely the military is intertwined with the ruling party — is Omar Suleiman, head of intelligence, who state media said had been sworn in as the new vice president. Mr. Suleiman is considered Mr. Mubarak’s closest confidant and a hard-liner, although Obama administration officials say they consider him someone they can work with. In meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, they say, he has shown substance and an ability to deliver on promises.
Mr. Riedel, who was an Egypt analyst at the C.I.A. when President Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and has since tracked the rise of Islamic extremism in that country, said that the Egyptian military would be a critical player in any deal to remove Mr. Mubarak from power.
At the Pentagon on Saturday morning, American military officials said that the Egyptian Army was acting professionally and that they had no indications that it had swung over to the side of the uprising. At the same time, the officials noted, the army has not cracked down on the protests.
“They certainly haven’t inflicted any harm on protesters,” said Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “They’re focused mainly on protecting the institutions of government, as they should be.”
United States military officials said there was no formal line of communication between the Joint Chiefs and the Egyptian military, although they said there might be conversations if the crisis deepened. Admiral Mullen had been scheduled to meet on Monday in Washington with Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, who is both the Egyptian defense chief and the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army. But General Enan was the leader of the delegation of senior Egyptian officials at the Pentagon and had left abruptly for Cairo on Friday night.
Admiral Mullen was part of a meeting on the Egyptian crisis at the White House later on Saturday run by Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mrs. Clinton participated by teleconference. Administration officials would not say whether they were trying to negotiate an end to the crisis or provide a safe exit for Mr. Mubarak.
For the Pentagon, the question now is how much influence the United States has on the Egyptian military and exactly what, given the chaos on the streets of Cairo, it would like the Egyptian armed forces to do other than exercise restraint.
“Are relations good enough for us to raise questions about excessive repression?” said Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Yes. Is it a force that will listen to us if there is a military takeover and we want them to move to a democratically elected government as soon as possible? They will listen. But this is a very proud group of people. The fact that they will listen doesn’t mean we can in any way leverage them.”
American military officials said on Friday that they had had no formal discussions with their Egyptian counterparts at the Pentagon about how to handle the uprising. “No guidance was given,” said Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “In other words, we didn’t say anything to them about how they should handle it, and they didn’t tell us about how they were going to handle it.”
But, General Cartwright said, “hallway” discussions did take place with the Egyptian military about the protests, and American military officials said contingency plans had been made should the American Embassy in Cairo have to be evacuated.
Unlike the feared Egyptian police forces, which had mostly withdrawn from central Cairo on Saturday, the army is considered professional, not repressive and a stable force in the country’s politics. Egyptian men all serve in the army, which for the most part enjoys popular support.