Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has maintained close contact with his counterpart, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, through the Egyptian political crisis as al-Sisi has emerged as the power broker in deposing elected President Mohammed Morsi and setting out a "roadmap" for new elections, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
Hagel phoned al-Sisi last Thursday as the huge demonstrations calling for Morsi's ouster took on an increasingly anti-U.S. tone, and spoke with him again on Tuesday after al-Sisi delivered an ultimatum warning that the military would act if Morsi failed to make concessions.
In an address to the nation Wednesday, al-Sisi said that Morsi had been ousted after he "failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people."
To "exit the current crisis," the Constitution had been suspended and the head of the Constitutional Court would act as interim president while a "roadmap" to new presidential and parliamentary elections was worked out to "establish a government that is strong and diverse," al-Sisi said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also kept in contact with Gen. Sedki Sobhi, the Egyptian chief of staff, to gain assurances that the U.S. citizens in Egypt, and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, would be protected.
Pentagon officials declined to give specifics on the conversations between Hagel and al-Sisi, but chief Pentagon spokesman George Little said that "US officials at all levels have made it clear that we support the democratic process in Egypt and that we hope that this period of tension can be resolved in a peaceful manner and that violence can be avoided."
"We don't support any single party or group," Little said. "We believe that this needs to be resolved through political means."
Although the officials would not discuss the specifics of the military-to-military talks, the U.S. would need al-Sisi's approval to move through Egyptian air space if Washington decided to send Marines to aid in the evacuation of U.S. personnel.
About 550 Marines and their tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey aircraft are at bases in Spain and Italy on standby if they are needed. A Navy Amphibious Ready Group with 4,000 Marines and sailors aboard, led by the helicopter assault ship Kearsarge, was also in the region following completion of the Eager Lion training exercises in Jordan.
Al-Sisi, 58, who received a masters degree from the U.S. War College in Carlisle, Pa., in 2006, could also be concerned that his actions might jeopardize the $1.3 billion in military assistance that the U.S. gives Egypt annually.
It has been the practice of the U.S. to cut off aid to nations that experience a military takeover. Last year, the U.S. ended training and assistance to the military in Mali when that country's military ousted the government.
On Tuesday, Little declined comment on the status of the military aid program for Egypt and deferred questions to the State Department, which also declined comment. Little would only say that "the U.S. is broadly looking forward to the peaceful end of this period of tension" in Egypt.
Hagel and Dempsey were walking a fine line in their contacts with the Egyptian military, expressing concern while attempting to avoid the impression that the U.S. was manipulating events behind the scenes.
Both the opposition demonstrators and the Muslim Brotherhood loyalists of Morsi have become more strident in recent days in accusing the U.S. of fomenting the unrest.
Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, has become a particular target of the demonstrators who have gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Patterson outraged the opposition with her June 18 speech in which she tried to discourage street protests against Morsi.
"Some say that street action will produce better results than elections," Patterson said. "To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical."
A popular poster waved by the demonstrators now features a distorted photo of Patterson's face over the word "Hayzaboon," an insult that means "ugly old woman" or "crone."