US defence chief, in Cairo, praises Egypt military

Thu Mar 24, 2011 6:19am GMT

By Phil Stewart

CAIRO (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday praised the military rulers guiding Egypt after the toppling of ally Hosni Mubarak but tiptoed round a debate over when elections should be held.

Gates has been Washington's main point of contact with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the 75-year-old general commander of the armed forces who served as Mubarak's defence minister for two decades and who heads to military council now ruling Egypt.

Tantawi and Gates have spoken more than a half-dozen times by phone in the past two months, but Thursday will mark their first face-to-face meeting since Egypt's crisis erupted.

"From our very first conversation, the field marshal told me that the Egyptian army is of the people and that it would protect the people," Gates said in Cairo.

"And in everything that ensued he and the Egyptian army kept their word."

Gates is the second U.S. cabinet-level official to visit Egypt since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 after 30 years in power, as Washington tries to position itself as a partner to Egypt despite its long support for the authoritarian ruler.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited this month.

MILITARY TIES   Continued...

<p>Army soldiers walk past people shouting anti-constitutional amendment slogans during a protest against a referendum, which will be on Saturday, at Tahrir Square in Cairo March 18, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdaalah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)</p>
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