Problems on hold Egypt-US relations: from tepid to warm?

30-05-2015 09:21 PM

Youssef Sidhom

Youssef Sidhom


I was not alone in my profound disillusionment with the US administration on account of its stance against Egypt when the latter decided to rid herself of the harrowing Islamist post-Arab Spring rule of then President Muhammad Mursi. Mr Mursi was overthrown on 3 July 2013 after one disastrous year in office, as a result of massive nationwide demonstrations on 30 June 2013 demanding that he should go. The army took the side of the people and the Islamist regime was overthrown. I was not alone in losing confidence in the US when it chose to support Mr Mursi in stark disrespect of the will of the Egyptian people. I was not alone in my outrage and bitterness at the US administration’s hostility towards the Egyptian revolution of 30 June 2013, and its persistence in branding the Egyptian army’s alignment with the will of the people as a military coup against a legitimate, elected president. Such was my dismay at the obstinacy of the Americans in turning a blind eye to the goings-on on our land, that I kept repeating to every politician or media person I met, be that American or European, that post-MB Egypt must very carefully reassess her strategic relations with the US and West Europe poles. Serious questions regarding these relations arose as it became obvious they were exploited for Western interests alone, to the detriment of the interests of Egypt and Egyptians.

It made sense then that Egypt should work a rapprochement with Russia and China, which I duly applauded.  The revival of warm political, economic and

military relations with the two countries had the effect of warning the West that Egypt will never be a helpless, dependent follower. Even though Egypt was not giving up on old friends, she would work on gaining new ones. The remarkable wisdom of the Egyptian administration in dealing with this issue impressed me.

US stances towards Egypt were far from consistent. The White House persisted in obstinacy and arrogance. It rejected the will of Egyptians and their achievements following the 30 June Revolution, disavowed their Roadmap to democracy and their war against terrorism, and the US President on several occasions met leaders of the terrorist MB. Congress and Pentagon, however, exported a more rational and realistic address. It intrigued me why the US President was so intransigent; possibly because his term in office was drawing to an end, or because of difficulty in changing his stance without losing face?

Reports by American political research centres upon which the US draws for policy making clearly exposed what had taken place and was ongoing in Egypt. They reported the scale of destruction Mr Mursi had inflicted upon the Egyptians who had elected him, how he damaged Egypt’s strategic interests and disdained and abused her identity in his attempt to turn her into an Islamic State. The result: Egyptians rebelled. The reports confirmed that Egypt is now in the midst of political, economic, social, cultural and religious reform, and that this reform is endorsed by the majority of Egyptians.

President Sisi’s visit to Russia earlier this month to join in celebrations of the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory over the Nazis confirmed that Egyptian Russian relations were in a honeymoon phase even as Egyptian US relations were too tepid. A few days later, however, President Sisi met Commander of the US Central Command General Lloyd Austin, and stressed Egypt’s keenness on strategic relations with the US. He praised all aspects of this relation and expressed wishes to nurture and develop it. On his part, Austin applauded the success and firm steps Egypt was taking on the road to political and economic development. He acknowledged the regional role Egypt is playing, and the Egyptian attempt to promote an enlightened, moderate religious address in the face of extremist, terrorist thought. Austin stressed US keenness to cooperate and work with Egypt.

The turn-around in US and Egyptian stances appeared as remarkable as it was unexpected, and drove me to dig into what might have triggered it. I found the answer in a paper by American researcher Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he had presented in a hearing at a Congressional Testimony. The paper, “Egypt Two Years after Morsi”, includes a thorough analysis from an American viewpoint. I care to highlight a few important passages:

  • Washington should be realistic about its ability to influence Egypt in a more democratic direction so long as the government and the Muslim Brotherhood remain in a life-and-death struggle with each other… In October 2013, the administration withheld most of the USD1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government”. Withholding military aid had no impact on Egypt’s domestic politics, and at the same time soured the strategic relationship between Washington and Cairo. Egypt inked a USD5.4 billion weapons deal with France and signed a preliminary USD3.5 billion weapons deal with Russia. Egypt reportedly partnered with the United Arab Emirates to attack jihadist sites in Libya without coordinating with Washington, and similarly rejected US assistance in Sinai.
  • The Obama administration effectively recognised its blunder 17 months later, in March 2015, when it announced it would resume the USD1.3 billion in aid to Egypt. But to signal its ongoing displeasure with Egypt’s domestic political trajectory, it announced the end of cash-flow financing of aid to Egypt after 2017. As a result, the US Egypt relationship will likely remain tense: if Cairo cannot depend on the reliable flow of aid that cash-flow financing entails, it will likely continue turning to other partners for weapons, including partners that do not necessarily share US interests in the Middle East.
  • Fuelling this tension isn’t in Washington’s interests, given Egypt’s role as an important US strategic partner. Egypt has maintained a peace treaty with Israel since 1979, and coordinates with Washington on a wide range of regional activities, including counterterrorism and diplomacy. Washington further relies on Egypt to support the current efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But perhaps more to the point, the Sisi government represents a major opportunity for Washington, because it is significantly more closely aligned with US interests than the Brotherhood-dominated government that preceded it. 
  • To be sure, the Obama administration is right to be concerned about Egypt’s domestic political trajectory, and it should use its diplomatic engagement with the Sisi government to encourage greater tolerance and political pluralism. But if Washington conditions its strategic relationship with Cairo on Egypt’s progress toward democracy, it won’t achieve democracy in Egypt given the current circumstances, and will hurt the bilateral strategic relationship in the process.
  • The current regional environment makes it particularly urgent for Washington to restore its relationship with Egypt on the basis of shared strategic interests. Specifically, Congress should encourage the Obama administration to proceed with the “strategic dialogue” that Cairo has requested since early 2014. This is an important opportunity to coordinate both countries’ strategies.

This research paper is important in that it sheds light on the changes in the US policy vis-à-vis Egypt in the upcoming period, and eliminates surprise at political scenes that may unfold.


Watani International

31 May 2015

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