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U.S. Military Has Sent Billions Of Dollars In Arms To Egypt

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Egyptian military that has now taken control has strong ties to the United States. The two countries take part in war games and officer exchanges, and the Egyptian military has received tens of billions of dollars worth of American military hardware, going back to the 1970s. NPR's Tom Bowman reports on the Egyptian military's relationship with the U.S.

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TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Senior American and Egyptian officers sat in a reviewing stand in Alexandria, Egypt, back in 2009. They looked through binoculars as an attack helicopter flew overhead. That was the last time the two militaries held a large war game known as Bright Star, which has roots going back three decades.

The follow-on war game was canceled because the Egyptian military seized power for more than a year, before paving the way for a presidential election in 2012. That military exercise with the United States might have been canceled, but not American military aid or military exchanges here in the U.S.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: It's a relationship that's certainly important and has some important personal ties and, you know, a billion dollars or so a year in security assistance.

BOWMAN: Michael O'Hanlon is a defense analyst with The Brookings Institution. That billion dollars each year buys F-16 aircraft, Abrams tanks, helicopters and other hardware. That money pays for about 80 percent of the weapons Egypt buys from American companies like General Dynamics.

Now that the Egyptian military is in a sensitive political spot, there are questions about whether or not that aid should continue. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, was asked today whether the U.S. is considering freezing American military aid.

JENNIFER RENE PSAKI, SPOKESWOMAN, DEPARTMENT OF STATE: It's premature to suggest that we have taken steps, we're thinking about taking steps. I'm not going to get ahead of, of course, events on the ground.

BOWMAN: Premature for the State Department because it's still uncertain what role the Egyptian military will play.

STATE: Clearly assessments would be made based on the facts on the ground and choices made by all parties, if needed.

BOWMAN: Later, President Obama said in a statement he was deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian military to remove President Morsi and suspend the constitution. Mr. Obama said the U.S. government will now review American aid to Egypt.

The U.S. is wrestling with what to do in Egypt, and part of the problem is the U.S. has closer ties with that country's military than with its political leadership, which came from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that many in Washington view with suspicion. In fact, President Obama had trouble in an interview last fall trying to find the right word to describe relations with Egypt.

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BOWMAN: Whatever Egypt is, O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution doubts the U.S. has much leverage over events there regardless of that military aid. The Egyptian military is more akin to the militaries of Turkey and Pakistan, he says: They'll go their own way.

O'HANLON: What's much more important is which way does the Egyptian military itself move relative to the rest of its society?

BOWMAN: That direction is still being played out on the streets of Cairo. Meanwhile, the U.S. military has plans - at least right now - to hold another Bright Star war game in Egypt in September. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.