By John T. Bennett - 02/11/11 07:47 PM EST
Some House lawmakers say they have no qualms about the Egyptian military assuming power in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak’s stunning resignation, stressing instead its role in preserving stability during the political transition.
Egyptian military officials announced Friday they would sack Mubarak’s Cabinet and dissolve parliament, leaving the longtime U.S. ally effectively under military rule.
“It’s a respected institution,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Foreign Relations Committee. “The support of the Egyptian military is critical.”
Like other lawmakers and U.S. officials, Berman lauded Egypt’s security forces for maintaining security during the last 18 days, during which hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets calling for Mubarak to step down.
“With a few exceptions, the military has shown restraint,” Berman told The Hill. “They have been the defender of stability.”
In a statement, Berman said Egypt's democratic transition will happen "if and only if" the military plays what he called a "constructive role."
"Having now taken power, the military should be encouraged to relinquish that power at the earliest practicable time to an empowered, civilian-led transitional government that incorporates a broad spectrum of opposition figures," he said.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), also a Foreign Affairs Committee member, called Mubarak’s ouster a “military coup,” but quickly added this prediction: “It will probably be OK for a while.”
During a committee hearing Thursday, Republican and Democratic members described an either-or proposition: The U.S. could back the military or the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that is officially banned in Egypt. Panel members said it appeared to them those are the only two groups powerful and organized enough to assume control in Egypt.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said while the Egyptian military “has an important role to play, we expect … what we expect from a military in any democratic society: that the military supports civil society.”
He then added: “It is not for the military to run the government.”
Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said U.S. officials should avoid putting too much support behind the military.
“The military is in no way unified” for a number of reasons, Cordesman said. Over the last few years, the “status and incomes of those ranging from captains to colonels has fallen — and that could be a problem.”
But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Friday that the military’s new role gives him “reasons to be hopeful that this will not turn into a radial Islamic state.”
Some lawmakers have been forceful this week in warning the administration about the ramifications of the Brotherhood grabbing power there.
Steinberg said repeatedly during the Thursday hearing that the Obama administration hopes a multitude of pro-democracy groups and individuals will have a hand both in a transitional regime and a new government once elections are held.
Even as the news of Mubarak’s fall from power and the military’s ascension was still fresh, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) on Friday said she has no worries about it taking over.
“The military there gives the Egyptian people a feeling of security and stability,” Davis said. “And the fact that the Pentagon, that our military officials have been talking and planning with them is probably a good thing."
To that end, the Pentagon is increasingly mum about senior U.S. officials’ discussions with their Egyptian counterparts, even as they have maneuvered into power.
After somewhat regular conversations in the early days of the revolution, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen reportedly did not talk to their Egyptian counterparts for several days.
But those talks have resumed, though details remain sketchy.
"Secretary Gates spoke with Field Marshal [Mohamed] Tantawi again last night,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a Friday e-mail. “It was his fifth phone conversation with the Egyptian defense minister since the situation in Egypt began.”
Mullen “spoke briefly last night” with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, according to Capt. John Kirby, Mullen's spokesman.
In a Friday statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Armed Services Committee ranking member, said the military will play a “critical role.” But he did offer some forward-looking advice for Egyptian military leaders.
“The Egyptian people are demanding a meaningful and irreversible transition to democracy,” McCain said, “and I urge the Egyptian military to faithfully support and secure the coming process of political change in Egypt."