Protesters throughout the Middle East and northern Africa are pressing their governments for reforms. But the U.S. military is keeping an especially close watch on two countries: Egypt and Bahrain.

That’s because both countries are key to the American military’s ability to operate in the region.

Egypt: A Canal Conundrum

Egypt’s importance can be summed up pretty simply, says naval expert Norman Polmar: “Egypt has the Suez Canal, which is vital,” he says.

A dozen or so U.S. warships pass through the canal each month on their way to the Persian Gulf.

There’s also a steady stream of oil tankers heading the other way to the U.S. and Europe. When the canal closed for eight years, starting with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the effect was devastating, Polmar says.

“Oil prices skyrocketed because it cost more to transport oil from the Middle East to Europe and to even North America around Africa,” he says.

Military officials doubt the canal could close again. But if it does, Gen. James Mattis, the top American officer in the region, said the United States would respond diplomatically, economically and, if necessary, militarily.

So Egypt matters. The U.S. may denounce the governments of Yemen and Libya for cracking down on dissent. But those countries are not vital to U.S. national security like Egypt or Bahrain, a tiny island nation halfway down the Persian Gulf.

(Source: npr.org)