The American relationship with Egypt needs to change if Washington wants to have substantive influence in Cairo. America’s recent strategy in Egypt has been focused on buying Egyptian compliance through military and economic aid, but it seems to have had little effect.
Nearly two months after the ouster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, President Obama appeared on CNN to affirm that a full revision of the US-Egyptian relationship is now underway by stating, “There's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened.”
Obama’s remarks indicate a shift in the administration’s near-silent public posture since Mr. Morsi’s ouster. While many have seen Mr. Obama’s reticence as reflective of muted approval, his recent remarks affirm that the decades-old US-Egyptian relationship of “aid for cooperation” is failing. The US has unrivalled access to the inner workings of the new Egyptian regime, but this access does not necessarily translate into more influence over the interim government’s decisions.
America’s $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt has granted the US privileged access to the country. Moreover, the relationship between the US and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of Egypt’s now-governing military, is strengthened by his past. He is the first-ever head of the Egyptian military to have trained in the United States, where he was selected to attend the US Army War College in 2006. Mr. Sisi and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have exchanged phone calls on an almost daily basis since Morsi’s ouster.
And yet, this connection has not translated into American influence in Egypt. This lack of influence is evident in the interim government’s reaction to the Obama administration’s understated response to the military crackdown. The US government has taken several key actions to express its displeasure. These steps began before the deadly clashes, starting with the delay of a shipment of F-16 fighter jets bound for Egypt.
Now, the debate over arms sales to Egypt continues, and a group of American congressmen, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, have called for a delay of an Apache helicopter shipment to Egypt.
After the recent violence, Obama cancelled the biannual joint military exercises held with Egypt, which had been scheduled for September. The latest volley came from the US last week, as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont told the Daily Beast that his understanding “is that aid to the Egyptian military has been halted, as required by law.” In actuality, this halt in aid comes in the form of an indefinite delay on the delivery of military equipment. However, the State Department denied any claim that the United States cut off military aid to Egypt.
These steps together were meant to force the Egyptian military to back down, halt its killing of civilians, and thus encourage a national reconciliation. Obama reiterated in his CNN interview, “there was a space right after Mr. Morsi was removed in which we did a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of diplomatic work to try to encourage the military to move in a path of reconciliation. They did not take that opportunity.”
None of these actions have forced the interim government to cease its crackdown or renounce violence against the protestors. Moreover, the Saudi Arabian government has come out openly in support of the military regime in Egypt, and has promised to match any amount of aid cut by the US with an equal aid package of its own.
The Saudis have also organized support for the new Egyptian regime among fellow Gulf States, recruiting the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to contribute to a $12 billion aid package sent to Egypt directly after Morsi’s removal from power and thus further weakening the leverage of an American aid package.
Egypt is increasing its independence from American influence elsewhere as well. The US was instrumental in establishing the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and the agreement resulted in joint security cooperation on the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt, Israel, and the US. The US, however, was always likely to be marginalized in this arrangement due to its distance from the region.
Israel and Egypt both claim that the US does not take the Islamist threat in the Sinai Peninsula seriously enough, and together the two countries have started to assert greater control of the region without the US. The accord between the two, both in their rhetoric and security cooperation, reveals the diminishing role of the US even in its traditional role as Egyptian-Israeli peacemaker.
The current strategy is also unpopular in both countries: Eighty-two percent of Egyptians stated in a Pew poll that US aid had a negative impact on the country, and a Gallup poll conducted in the wake of the August violence found that 51 percent of Americans wanted to cut aid to Egypt to demonstrate a tough American stance on the issue.
Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s interim Minister for Foreign Affairs, recently stated that “the relationship between Egypt and the US has been there for a long time. It has been through ups and downs in the past. We hope things will go back to normal promptly.” The relationship, however, must evolve to meet changing circumstances.
The US is faced with a simple choice. It can continue to give aid and accept its lack of influence over Egyptian internal affairs in favor of securing its security interests – from expedited passage in the Suez Canal and use of Egyptian airspace, to extensive cooperation with Egyptian intelligence services. Such a pragmatic policy would be an admission of the importance of interests over principles.
The other option is to cease aid to Egypt and stand with America’s professed principles. In doing so, the US would risk a variety of current security benefits. The choice is not an easy one, but one thing is clear – the exchange of “aid for cooperation” is no longer working.
There is a third choice, however. As the US cannot undo the violence that has already occurred in Egypt, there is a slight opportunity to influence the future of Egyptian politics to be more democratic. One option could be a temporary freeze of military aid to Egypt during the seven months remaining in the transitional period. The US government would communicate with the Egyptian military that the aid would be reinstated at the end of the period if the transition included the Muslim Brotherhood and other nonviolent Islamist groups in democratic processes and elections, and if the new constitution protects the rights of all Egyptians, including minorities like women and Christian Copts.
This gesture would send a strong message to the Egyptian military showing that the US is acting on principle rather than solely preserving security interests in the Middle East.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He writes a weekly article in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk. Follow him on Twitter @ElmenshawyM.