Resetting U.S.-Egyptian Relations
How to get two historic partners back on track.
In the four decades since U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat ended Egypt’s two decades of close relations with the Soviet Union, U.S.-Egypt relations have never seen a more negative trajectory than that experienced during the past eight months. News this week that a court in Egypt has sentenced 528 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death will likely further exacerbate the crisis. Increasingly, the reaction of U.S. opinion and decision makers to this downturn in Egypt-U.S relations is a mix of despair and abandonment. Thus, many in DC—in the administration, in Congress, and in the media—seem to have “given up” on Egypt.
At the root of this downturn is the huge gap between the two sides’ narratives regarding the implications of Egypt’s experience in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening. To make matters worse, Washington and Cairo seem unable to demonstrate sufficient sensitivity to one another’s priorities and concerns. Thus, the U.S. seems not to appreciate the extent to which the Egyptian civic nationalists (madaniyya) regard their struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood as existential. Equally, the Egyptian government seems insensitive to what Washington regards as clear signs of Cairo’s return to authoritarianism.
The Obama administration views itself as having made a huge investment in the Egypt’s “Awakening.” By urging President Mubarak to heed the demand of the masses gathered in Tahrir Square two and half years ago, the administration set aside three decades of strategic partnership with a dependable ally in favor of advancing its version of a “freedom agenda.” Despite signs that the Muslim Brotherhood was better positioned to take advantage of the new situation than any other political force in Egypt, the administration advocated an electoral process that saw the Brothers winning elections to the legislature as well as to the Presidency.
Obama administration officials were not blind to the fact that in the aftermath of these elections, the Brothers’ performance in office was highly deficient and that as president, Morsi made many mistakes. Still, the U.S. insisted that as “Egypt’s first democratically elected president,” Morsi should have been given the chance—as in any democracy—to defend his actions whenever the next elections were to take place and that he should have been judged in the polls.
Given these inclinations, it is hardly surprising that Washington regarded Morsi’s removal on June 30 as a “coup” if not a “counter-revolution”. The millions demanding Morsi’s removal were not equated with the millions who gathered in Tahrir Square in late January 2011 to demand Mubarak’s ousting. In this narrative, the two cases were very different because while Mubarak could not be removed from office through elections, the revolution established a mechanism for punishing incompetent leaders at the polls.
Not surprisingly, the narrative of Egypt’s civic nationalists about these same developments is very different. In their view, Washington has falsely equated democracy with elections, ignoring the fact that what Egypt experienced in the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution was anything but pluralist democracy. Instead, what emerged was a crude form of majoritarian rule, where minorities such as Egypt’s Copts were disenfranchised and their views were ignored.
In the eyes of Egypt’s civic nationalists, instead of ruling democratically, the Brothers launched a “power grab”—a process of systematic penetration of the government and institutional organs of the state, issuing a presidential decree that provided the presidency immunity from checks by all other branches, including the judiciary,
Since President Morsi’s removal on June 30, 2013, the civic nationalists’ narrative about the Muslim Brotherhood had only become more derogatory, as they are now seen as having encouraged and aided the activity of terrorism groups—thereby becoming terrorists themselves. Thus, during their one year in power, the Brothers were said to have allowed the return to Egypt of three thousand battle-tested Al Qaeda terrorists and to have released, by presidential orders, a large number of condemned terrorists from Egyptian prisons. Consequently, the Brothers are viewed as responsible not only for the sharp rise in violence in Egypt’s major cities, but also as having encouraged the creation of terror cells in the Sinai Peninsula and its transformation to ungovernable land.
Conversely, the measures taken by Egypt’s new government are seen by key members of Washington’s policy and opinion making circles as constituting nothing short of a return to the authoritarianism experienced and exercised during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. Once again, the Muslim Brothers are seen as being mass-arrested at best—and slaughtered at worst—while secular-liberal critics of the government are viewed as being rounded up and put on trial on trumped-up charges. Within this context, Egypt’s new constitution, approved in January 2014 was seen as providing “extensive autonomy and immunity to the army, as well as the right to try civilians in military courts.”
Given the huge gap between the narratives of the Obama administration and Egypt’s current government, there appears a growing propensity in Washington to shrug Egypt off and to view the deep crisis in the two countries’ relations as insoluble but tolerable.The latter contention is based on the mistaken assessment that mired in its domestic struggle Egypt’s role in the region is marginal.
The growing perception that Egypt doesn’t matter is short-sighted and ahistorical. First, with a population of ninety-two million, Egypt is the largest and most populous of the Arab states. Located on the shores of the Mediterranean and at the corner of Asia, Africa and the Maghreb, its geopolitical position is also pivotal. It is therefore not surprising that during much of the twentieth century Egypt was the Arab world’s trend-setter, culturally as much as politically.
Second, Egypt proved itself as an anchor of any Arab coalition to contain regional threats. In 1980-88, it was a key to organizing Arab backing to Iraq’s war effort—a war seen as an effort to contain Iran’s ambition to export its revolution. Similarly, in early 1991, Egypt comprised an essential Arab component of the U.S.-orchestrated coalition to roll-back Saddam’s conquest of Kuwait.
Third, Egypt has been a key moderating factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only did it chart the course by being the first Arab country to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, it sustained this treaty for the past thirty-five years despite recurring regional pressures, ranging from Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to two Palestinian Intifadas. In 1991 Egypt also assisted the U.S. in organizing and hosting the Madrid Peace Conference, and in the aftermath of the 1993 PLO-Israel Oslo Accords it hosted almost all post-Oslo implementation negotiations.
Fourth, during the past two and a half decades, both before and after the horrific September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Egypt has been an active and effective partner to U.S. efforts to battle Islamic extremism and terror. From intelligence sharing to cooperation in covert operations, Egypt’s security services worked closely with their U.S. counterparts.
In the coming months and years, the relative importance of these Egyptian roles will only grow. First, given the magnitude of the chaos currently characterizing the Middle East—posing serious questions regarding the future viability of the region’s nation-states—Egypt’s role in any attempt to restore order to the region will be essential. This is because such restoration of order will require nothing less than Egypt cooperating with Saudi Arabia and the smaller GCC states to create a “Concert of Arabia”—similar to the Concert of Europe created by Metternich to organize the continent into nation-states that would respect one another’s territory and rights.
Second, regardless of how the nuclear negotiations with Iran conducted by the P5+1 will turn out, containing Iran’s influence—in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain—will be a major challenge. Cairo’s critically important role in such containment has already propelled key GCC states to provide Egypt’s new regime with massive financial support.
Third, Egypt is critically important to providing the requisite regional backing to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve a breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. Without Egypt’s backing, the odds that PA President Mahmoud Abbas will feel secure enough to make the required Palestinian concessions for this breakthrough to materialize are next to zero. And without Egypt’s continued effective containment of Hamas in Gaza, it would be impossible to prevent the latter from acting as an effective spoiler of a possible PA-Israel accord, whether interim or permanent.
Finally, without Egypt’s continued efforts and close security cooperation with Israel, it will be impossible to prevent Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and cells from transforming the Sinai Peninsula into a nest and launching ground for Islamic extremism throughout the region.
U.S.-Egypt relations are currently experiencing a negative trajectory. Yet as the preceding analysis makes clear, Egypt is too important to ignore. Hence, a major effort should be launched to “reset” the two countries’ relations. This requires addressing all dimensions of the crisis.
First, discussions aimed at narrowing the wide gap between the two sides’ definition of the situation currently experienced by Egypt as well as between the narratives about the developments experienced in Egypt since the eruption of the Arab Awakening.