US-Egypt Relations: When Ideals and Interests Collide

Two states talking past each other.

Rarely has the tension between ideals and interests in U.S. foreign policy collided more spectacularly than regards the Middle East in general, and Egypt in particular. The result has been two countries that have talked past each other in recent years, with Washington focused on the ideal of democracy promotion, while most Egyptians are seemingly interested in putting food on the table and commuting to work without being waylaid by another massive street protest.

Last week the Egyptians voted in favor of a new constitution, which will give both Washington and Cairo another opportunity to talk past each other. Neither seems likely to pass it up.

By U.S. reckoning, Egypt has deviated off the path of democracy ever since the Egyptian military overthrew the elected government of former President and Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi in July, 2013. The coup came amid massive street protests against Morsi’s brand of Islamist authoritarianism, and was cheered by millions of Egyptians.

Since Morsi was removed from office, a government led by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has rolled back many of the freedoms won after the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who along with Morsi now languishes in an Egyptian prison cell. Now it’s General al-Sissi’s turn for governing Egyptian style. Under his watchful eye the Egyptian government has labeled the Muslim Brotherhood (which garnered roughly 5 million votes in the 2012 election), as a terrorist organization, sending many of its members and supporters underground. The government also violently cracked down on protests by Brotherhood supporters that left hundreds dead last summer. Viewing last week’s “yes” vote on the constitution as a referendum on the military coup that dare not speak its name, Egyptian security forces launched a typical campaign of intimidation and arrests against any citizen who opposed the new constitution.

The Obama administration responded to al-Sissi’s repressions by withholding some of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. assistance to Egypt last year, and delaying the delivery of major weapons systems such as Apache helicopters. The weapons transfers would recommence only after Egypt made more progress towards an “inclusive, democratically-elected civilian government,” in the words of State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.

Indeed, through the prism of America’s democratic ideals, Egypt looks to be reconstituting a military dictatorship and fomenting a violent insurgency, virtually by the numbers. “Where are we headed? We’re headed for Algeria,” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted last year on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” in an assessment that resonates with some senior U.S. military leaders. “The Brotherhood will go underground. Al-Qaeda will come to their aid. And you’re going to have an armed insurgency, not protesters on your hands…And we’re going to have a failed state in Egypt.”

In fact, attacks by Islamic extremists have steadily risen since last summer, including a car bomb attack on the Interior Minister in Cairo, and hit-and-run ambushes in the wild Sinai, where 350 Egyptian soldiers and policemen have been killed since July. And yet, conditioned to view U.S.-Egyptian relations through the prism of national interests, Egyptian officials don’t quite get all the U.S. preaching on democracy, nor do they appreciate it. In a stream of consultations and phone calls, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has expressed U.S. concerns about transparency and “free expression” surrounding this week’s constitutional referendum, most recently on January 12, and Egyptian officials responded by essentially making a public vote of “no” cause for arrest.

Meanwhile, alarmed by extremist gains in the Egyptian Sinai near the border with Israel, the U.S. Congress is poised to pass new legislation clearing the way for the transfer of those ten Apache gunships after all. The only remaining condition will be that Egypt hold parliamentary and presidential elections slated for later this year. No word yet on whether Egypt’s outlawing the opposition in those elections will be considered a disqualification. Chalk up a familiar victory of raw interests and realism over idealism.

James Kitfield has written on foreign policy and national security issues from Washington, D.C. for over two decades as a contributing editor and former senior correspondent for National Journal, publishing hundreds of magazine features and web stories and reporting from dozens of countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa. His reporting has won numerous awards, including three Gerald R. Ford Awards for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense; five Distinguished Reporting Awards from the Military Reporters and Editors Association and Medill School of Journalism; and a National Press Club Award for Diplomatic Correspondence.

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