ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, March 24, 2011 — In a meeting in Cairo this morning, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates commended his counterpart’s leadership and the Egyptian military’s professionalism during the recent tumultuous events in that country, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Gates met with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to discuss issues that included the evolving government of Egypt, security in the Sinai and fighting in Libya, Morrell said.
In their meeting, Gates told Tantawi — commander in chief and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt — that on the trip from the airport he noticed more Egyptian flags flying around the city than he’d ever seen since he first visited Egypt in 1978, the press secretary added.
“The secretary suggested that there is a new spirit of patriotism or nationalism on display,” he said, “and the field marshal agreed that was the case.”
Gates congratulated Tantawi on a successful March 19 referendum that marked the first in a series of constitutional reforms being implemented in the country, as well as on the impressive turnout of voters who weighed in on the measure.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military group that is running the country during this period of transition, convened a set of constitutional scholars and then developed a series of reforms that were put up to a popular vote,” a senior military official said. More than 40 percent of eligible voters turned out, and 77 percent voted in favor of the constitutional amendments, the official added.
Morrell said the secretary and field marshal also discussed Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
“New elements of civil society in Egypt came to the fore during the past two months,” Gates told reporters at a briefing in Cairo yesterday, “and there is a new political space in Egypt.”
It is important to allow enough time to develop political parties and organizations, he added, so those who have become newly active in Egyptian politics “can play the same kind of leading role in Egypt in the future that they played in bringing about this change in the first place.”
Tantawi and Gates discussed security in the Sinai, Morrell said, and Tantawi updated the secretary on military efforts that include countersmuggling, an effort for which the U.S. military has offered technical assistance to the Egyptians.
“They discussed relations with Israel,” Morrell said, “and the field marshal in this conversation, as the Egyptian prime minister did yesterday, took it upon himself to reaffirm Egypt’s commitment to their peace treaty with Israel.”
The secretary noted Tantawi’s new responsibilities as interim leader of the Egyptian government, in addition to his “very large day job, which is running the Egyptian military,” Morrell said.
Gates said the U.S. military wishes to resume a more regular military-to-military relationship with the Egyptians. The U.S. military performs about seven major joint exercises a year with the Egyptians, Morrell said, including Bright Star, a series of combined and joint training exercises led by U.S. and Egyptian forces in Egypt that began in 1981.
The secretary and the field marshal also talked about U.S. military and economic aid to Egypt, the press secretary said.
Despite “serious economic pressures in our own country,” Gates said, the manner in which Tantawi and his military handled this period in Egyptian history “has put them in good stead back at home in America, particularly with the U.S. Congress.” Gates said he is committed to working to ensure military and economic support continues for the struggling nation, where tourism is down by more than 75 percent, Morrell said.
“They need us and others to continue to do what we can to assist them,” Morrell added.
The military leaders also discussed violence in Libya between the government and coalition forces in Operation Odyssey Dawn, Morrell said. Tantawi told Gates that Egypt is concerned about the large numbers of its citizens living in Libya, the press secretary said, and about potential reprisals from Moammar Gadhafi.
Between March 5 and March 17, the U.S. military airlifted 1,100 Egyptians from Djerba off the coast of Tunisia to Cairo, Defense Department spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Wendy Snyder said.
“[If there is] anything we can do,” Gates told Tantawi as they shook hands after the meeting, “don’t hesitate to call me.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)