U.S.-Egyptian Relations on the Brink?

The Obama administration risks pushing Cairo toward a radical strategic reorientation.

Forty years ago deft American diplomacy, along with the foresight of Egypt’s then president Anwar Sadat, led to a dramatic reorientation in Egypt’s foreign policy, from the leading member of the pro-Soviet camp in the Middle East, to a major American ally. The result was the emergence of a moderate and stable pro-American Arab camp, close cooperation with these countries in containing and deterring regional radicals such as Iraq, Libya and Iran, and peace between Israel and Egypt—and later Jordan, too.

Today, American-Egyptian relations are in tatters, the result of Egypt’s domestic convulsions and an American response which may be driving it back into the hands of Russia, with which it recently signed, or at least initialed, a Saudi-financed multibillion-dollar arms deal. Signs of an Egyptian-Russian rapprochement have been brewing for months, with reciprocal visits of top diplomatic and military officials, including by putative Egyptian President Sisi in Moscow, and a possible visit by President Putin to Cairo. The purported arms deal includes advanced fighter aircraft, air-defense systems, missiles, joint military training, counterterrorism cooperation and Russian naval port calls in Egypt.

If finalized, it would be Egypt’s first arms deal with Russia since the early 1970s and a potentially dramatic reversal in Cairo’s foreign-policy orientation, with major ramifications for regional stability and peace. It would also be an intentional Egyptian-Saudi slap in America’s face. It may also be a cry for greater American attention and consideration. In either event, it is a deal which Egypt feels it is being forced into by American policy and presumably one that it would be willing to reverse, were the US to show greater openness to the new military regime’s needs.

Since President Mubarak’s ousting in 2011, well-meaning American policy has succeeded in alienating virtually all segments of Egyptian society. Some believe that the US was too hasty in abandoning Mubarak, its longtime ally, and that its embrace of the successor Muslim Brotherhood government was deeply misguided. Although democratically elected, the Brotherhood is anything but a force for democracy. Indeed, it is a radical theocratic organization, rabidly anti-American and anti-Semitic, which failed grossly in its short year in power. Consequently, the vast majority of Egypt’s population, including the liberals, overwhelmingly supported the coup that overthrew the Brotherhood last summer and continue to support the military’s efforts to stabilize the country, prevent a total economic meltdown and gradually restore at least limited civilian government.

Recognizing the complexities, the administration has repeatedly equivocated. It refused to recognize the coup as such to avoid triggering legislation which would have forced a complete cessation of economic and military aid to Egypt and led to a rupture in relations. Bending to Congressional pressure and its own values, it subsequently announced a partial cut in military aid, including such high-visibility items as F-16s. Since then it has sent further mixed signals, criticizing the harsh measures adopted by the new regime, along with its desire to end the bilateral crisis and renew military assistance. The result has been the worst of all worlds, with the Egyptian public even further alienated and the new military regime furious and flirting with Moscow.

Relations with authoritarian regimes have long posed a deep dilemma for American policy, between US strategic interests and the exigencies of realpolitik—the need to deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be—and America’s democratic ideals. In the pursuit of the former, the US has long supported numerous heinous regimes, none more so than the Saudi oil theocracy, or South Korea and South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Conversely, it has rarely failed to support democracies, or countries undergoing democratic transitions.

Unfortunately, Egypt was not undergoing a “transition to democracy” under the Muslim Brotherhood, as touted by so much of the American media and many political leaders. Free elections are only one component of democracy, along with a separation of powers, respect for the rule of law and more. The sad truth is that Egypt probably does not have, and likely will not have for decades to come, the prerequisites for becoming a stable democracy.

In all likelihood, the next Egyptian government, following the upcoming elections, will be one in which the military remains the primary locus of power and final arbiter of all policy, but in which it will allow the civilian government some latitude for day-to-day governance. In effect, it will be a somewhat liberalized version of the military dictatorship that has long ruled Egypt, or something like the semi-democratic Turkish model of the 1990s, in which the military had the final word.

The United States should encourage the new government to gradually allow greater political freedoms, primarily for liberal forces in Egyptian society and moderate religious ones, while recognizing that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist extremists are fundamentally antidemocratic forces that should be suppressed. Democratization in Egypt will be a long-term process, if it succeeds at all. Over time, as moderate and responsible political parties emerge, they and the parliament should be given a greater role. It is a difficult balancing act and requires that we compromise on deeply held values. This is the reality the US will have to deal with.

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