For more than thirty years the Egyptian-American relationship has been at the heart of U.S. policies in the Middle East. Because of its depth and breadth, it was able to withstand the normal differences of opinion and policy that divide global and regional powers. That relationship, based on peace between Egypt and Israel but extending to every one of America’s engagements in the region, is broken, and merely tinkering around the edges will not repair it. The decline of understanding between the United States and Egypt has jeopardized our image in Egypt and our ability to influence Egypt’s domestic order. Without a strong U.S.-Egyptian relationship, the United States cannot achieve its many objectives in the region.
While both countries can survive the parting of ways that appears increasingly likely, there is no reason to consummate the divorce without one more effort to renew vows according to a revised set of mutual interests and a clearer understanding of where we differ. The American administration and the Egyptian government have an opportunity to reinvent the bilateral relationship to mutual advantage. The tumult since the 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak has obscured the fact that at least three of the four pillars on which the decades-old relationship between the two countries was built still remain in place. Egypt has as great an interest today as it had in 1979 in maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, which is perhaps the primary anchor for the relationship. Insecurity is growing in the Sinai, and Egypt requires the intelligence and security cooperation it enjoys with Israel. Radical Islamists from Gaza now represent as much of a threat to Egypt as they do to Israel, and Egypt has seen fit to aggressively act to shut down tunnels used for smuggling. The preservation of the peace treaty and the strengthening of Egyptian-Israeli ties are still important to the United States as well, especially as the Administration actively pursues a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
No less important is the strategic military and intelligence cooperation Egyptians and Americans have fostered over more than three decades. Egypt faces a number of significant security challenges, all of which are also important to the United States, including the peaceful resolution of disputes over Nile waters, managing the chaos in Libya, and focusing on counterinsurgency so as to push back against the efforts by terrorists to establish a base of operations in Sinai. Egypt needs the tools to fight terrorism, and this is where U.S. and Egyptian interests continue to coincide. Moreover, Egypt’s political and security interests extend far beyond its own borders. Our friends in the Gulf regard Egypt as a key component in their security and judge the quality of the U.S.-Egypt relationship as a part of their security ties to the United States.
A third pillar of the relationship relates to Egypt’s economic well-being, a matter of deep concern more than thirty years ago that has returned to the fore since the 2011 revolution. It is in no one’s interest for the Egyptian economy to remain reliant on the largesse of the Saudis and other Gulf states. Economic growth rates before the revolution demonstrate that Egypt has the means to advance economically with less foreign assistance.
The fourth pillar of the relationship has created a wide chasm of mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides: the degree to which Egypt remains a military-dominated authoritarian state or begins moving toward a more open, democratic society in which there is respect for diversity, human rights, and basic freedoms. Astonishingly, Egyptians believe the United States is responsible for all the ills that have befallen their country since the revolution. They even believe that the United States installed the Muslim Brotherhood in power in order to dominate Egyptian society. Equally astonishing, some in the United States believe that the only metric by which to measure the value of relations with Egypt is the degree to which Egypt meets their democratization standards.
To be sure, the direction of Egyptian internal politics does not lend itself to optimism or complacency with regard to the prospects for democratization. The brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and some liberal opponents of the military-backed government have closed off Egypt’s political space in ways reminiscent of the worst periods of repression in the past. The prospect that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be the next President is not in itself a danger, but the military’s tone-deafness regarding the balance between stability and openness is a bad sign. Al-Sisi’s decision to resign as Defense Minister and to declare his candidacy just a day after more than 500 Muslim Brotherhood members were sentenced to death could not have been more ominous or poorly timed.
Egyptian-American relations have always been fractious, even during periods that appeared calm on the surface. The two countries do not share a common political culture or a common view of the region or the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt guarded its professed neutrality in the Cold War, even as it opened its doors to thousands of Soviet military advisors and adopted strident anti-American positions in public. For the Eisenhower Administration, which demanded that countries make a choice between the Soviets or the United States, Egypt was considered part of the opposition, notwithstanding Egypt’s formal non-aligned status. President Kennedy and to some extent President Johnson tested the waters for improved U.S.-Egyptian ties, but the gaps were too deep and wide. Indeed, it wasn’t until Gamal Abdel Nasser passed from the scene in 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat that a real opportunity presented itself to change the nature of bilateral relations.
Sadat held to a strategic view that the United States was and would remain the dominant power in the Middle East. He was frustrated with the stagnation in the peace process, which he attributed to Israeli obstinacy; upset over the American preference for “standstill diplomacy” and its growing strategic ties with Israel; and angry at the Soviets for withholding arms and support he required to break the diplomatic logjam. His strategy for the 1973 war was designed to deal with all of these frustrations, to change the regional balance of power and alignments. His goals were to build a U.S.-Egyptian partnership that would unlock the stalled peace process and recover Egyptian territory, and to help Egypt escape from its pressing economic crisis.
The forging of the strategic relations between Egypt and the United States during the 1973–79 period resulted from the convergence of three critical factors. First, the interests of the two countries coincided far more than they diverged, including replacing the Egyptian-Soviet alliance with an Egyptian-American relationship; starting (and ultimately concluding) a peace process in which Egypt would recover the Sinai; and building a bilateral military and economic relationship fueled by American assistance. Second, the degree to which these goals were translated into action resulted from the growing trust and mutual admiration between Sadat and senior American officials. Third, the United States was seen, and acted, as the dominant power in the region, acting with diplomatic agility and determination that was backed up by strong presidential leadership. This common strategic vision provided the foundation for the policy goals of the emerging Egyptian-American relationship—namely, peace between Egypt and Israel, supported actively by the United States, as evidenced by the American role in negotiating the treaty and its ongoing role in treaty compliance; Egyptian-American military partnership which, through 2012, was fueled by $41.85 billion in U.S. military aid; and the transformation of the Egyptian economy, assisted by $31.3 billion in U.S. economic assistance.
On the eve of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, therefore, Egypt and the United States could point to a strategic relationship that had accomplished many of its major goals, weathered some significant storms, and appeared resilient and flexible. Indeed, one could not help but recall the story, probably apocryphal, of the Soviet General who was asked to reflect on Sadat’s 1972 decision to kick the Soviets out of Egypt. “Yes, we are disappointed,” said the General, “but we did get seventeen good years, not bad for a big power-small power relationship.” By 2011, the United States could point to more than thirty good years of strategic partnership. No reasonable analyst of the Egyptian-American relationship should overlook the huge contributions Egypt made directly and indirectly during the Gulf War and later in sustaining U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, the relationship is hanging by a thread, with accumulating anger in both Cairo and Washington over real and perceived policy differences. The Egyptian military may feel less dependent on the United States for modernization; Washington may place less value on military relations; Egypt’s economy is in a free fall from which the United States, with limited resources and even less will, cannot extricate it; and the promising 2011 road to democracy is now strewn with the bodies of Muslim Brothers, Coptic Christians, and some liberals.
Paradoxically, however, the respective interests of Egypt and the United States continue to converge and, in some respects, may call for further cooperation. Strategic, mutual interests are evident in the need to prevent the Sinai Peninsula from becoming a lawless haven for criminal and terrorist activity; in the imperative of resolving Nile water disputes between Ethiopia and Egypt amicably in an increasingly water-challenged region; in the continued instability in South Sudan and the acute possibility that internal differences there will revive cross-border fighting with Sudan; and in the U.S. requirement, at least for several more years, of a stable, secure transportation and logistics route as U.S. forces transition out of Afghanistan.
The divide between these two partners thus comes down almost entirely to the future direction of Egypt’s political system. For a majority of the Egyptian population, the military’s role in politics promises stability and normalcy missing from Egyptian life since Mubarak’s overthrow. The liberal opposition in Egypt, now affected by the military-backed government’s crackdown on all forms of opposition, may not sit as still in the future as it did under Mubarak. For the foreseeable future, however, its demands for political inclusiveness and respect for the rule of law will likely not have resonance among the masses. NGOs and outsiders, including the United States, have been relegated to the sidelines; even the threat or reality of aid cutoffs seems to leave little impression on Egypt’s rulers. Still, it is unwise to write off Egypt’s revolution as a lost cause and to conclude that Egypt has returned permanently to the repression of the past. Egypt is just emerging from a time of crises and chaos. The end of the story has not yet been written. All of Egypt’s leaders, military and civilian, agree on one point: They can no longer take the Egyptian public for granted. When aroused, it can destroy any offending political order.
This disparity between the two countries’ hard interests and the “softer” issues of democracy and respect for human and civil rights is being driven largely by deep debates within both societies. In Egypt, the army and its allies are vying with the Islamists for influence and power, each pretending to speak for the nation while protecting and advancing its own narrow interests. The liberal opposition is a new political force and a potent check on absolute power, but has yet to organize politically or develop a positive agenda for change. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy has said that “the outlook for the new Egypt…[is] a country whose future will be driven increasingly by the absolute imperative of sustained economic growth; increased resource and demographic pressures; and all of this against the backdrop of greater pluralism and political openness.” Strong and positive words, but they have yet to be backed up by a serious political commitment to an open, pluralist system.
In the United States, liberals have joined forces with neoconservatives to oppose further assistance to Egypt, while some realists and traditional conservatives have argued for the strategic importance of maintaining ties with Egypt. No one argues the case against Egypt’s continued importance in strategic terms, but the question is whether American political values can coexist with an Egypt that is likely to exhibit strong authoritarian tendencies into the future.
Will shared strategic interests—largely unchanged over the past thirty years—be able to withstand the political and emotional roller coaster of Egyptian politics and the vagaries of American policy preferences? Since almost all of the longstanding shared interests remain substantially the same, a new “social contract” between the United States and Egypt will need to be nuanced and textured, encompassing areas where agreement includes joint action, as well as areas where there is no agreement but a willingness to engage in dialogue.
First, Egypt and the United States should recommit not only to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty but also to coordinating policy with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is important to reconstitute this dialogue and this arena of cooperation if any progress is to be made in resolving the underlying conflict in Palestine.
Second, Egypt and the United States should reinvigorate the moribund strategic dialogue and invest it with meaning. Senior officials should meet semi-annually to share analysis and try to concert approaches on issues such as Nile waters, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and the like. This dialogue needs to be institutionalized and invested with meaning.
Third, a high-level dialogue must yield a fundamental reorientation of American military assistance. Egypt needs equipment and training related to Canal transit protective equipment and training and for counter-terrorism, the principal threat Egypt now faces.
Fourth, a high-level dialogue must also yield a fundamental reorientation of American economic assistance. American aid to Egypt has been more successful than most Egyptians are prepared to admit, but it is now accomplishing little, as Egypt’s economy (hopefully) recovers from the downslide of the past three years. One of Egypt’s most pressing problems in the years ahead will be job creation, as the population surpasses 100 million and 750,000 Egyptians enter the workforce annually. The newly established U.S.-Egypt enterprise fund is a creative way for the United States to use assistance funds for the purpose of economic growth and employment. The United States can make a special and lasting contribution through support for education, such as assured annual funding for the American University in Cairo (where I serve as a member of the Board), and substantial funding for scholarships for Egyptian students to study in American universities. This will help prepare Egyptians for the jobs so desperately needed and provide exposure to the American educational system and its values of democracy and freedom.
With these important areas of cooperation and partnership reaffirmed, and with American assistance reconfigured and continued, Egypt must be ready to embark on a path to pluralism and openness. The United States cannot expect to dictate the terms of this transition; the pace and scope of change must be decided in Egypt. But Egypt must be open to American thinking, and must make a convincing case that change is more than cosmetic. An important start and sign will be an end of the brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal opposition. A second step must be a serious national reconciliation process, to include young and old, Muslim and Copt, military and civilians. After all, national reconciliation is in Egypt’s interests, and respect for human rights, freedom of expression, judicial independence, religious tolerance, and the rights of women should be included in Egypt’s newly-drafted and approved constitution. Surely these issues can be part of a reasoned, respectful bilateral dialogue.
None of these steps, individually or collectively, is assured to rebuild trust. But the failure to take these steps assuredly will allow for the continued erosion of trust. Trust is built on facts, and these will take time to accumulate. It is late, but not too late to recreate the basis for a serious strategic relationship between two longstanding allies.