Drifting Down The Nile: US, Egypt Prepare to Talk
The upcoming strategic dialogue will seek to expand the relationship beyond security issues—or maybe just get things back on track.
On August 2, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Cairo for the first U.S.-Egypt “strategic dialogue” since 2009. The high-level forum has been held on and off since the Clinton administration as part of the still-unmet goal of expanding the relationship beyond security issues into more robust trade, investment, and educational ties. During the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, the dialogue was mostly a talk shop and sop to Egypt for support on counterterrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. In light of today’s diminished ties, similarly modest expectations for this Sunday’s conclave are in order, despite the State Department’s upbeat announcement that the dialogue “reaffirms the United States’ longstanding and enduring partnership with Egypt and will…further our common values, goals, and interests.”
Egypt undoubtedly views the United States’ willingness to hold the dialogue as an important diplomatic achievement and further evidence of its stamina and leverage over Washington, particularly after the White House backtracked on its partial weapons suspension. Indeed, Egypt outlasted the suspension—imposed in October 2013 in response to the mass killings of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, then lifted in March 2015 despite the worsening human rights situation—and several months of a White House cold shoulder without making any concessions on human rights. In contrast to the shifting and convoluted U.S. message on Egypt in the past few years, Cairo has kept itsnarrative entirely consistent, if not fully convincing: Egypt is fighting terrorism caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the source of all Islamist terrorism everywhere; is building a democracy; is a crucial partner for the West to fight terrorism; and is a relative success story when measured against failed states such as Libya, Syria, or Yemen. As one Egyptian commentator recently wrote, “We need to engage in the dialogue from a position of strength and with greater confidence in our status. The United States is now aware of Egypt’s importance.”
To skeptical observers this might seem precisely the wrong time for the United States to bolster such confidence and show support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, particularly as an intensifying cycle of terrorism and repression may be taking Egypt down a very dark path. The Obama administration is not pleased about Sisi’s crackdown, but seems to have concluded that his repression does not pose any immediate threats to U.S. interests. American officials apparently hope that senior-level talks with his government will advance Washington’s core interests. Short-term thinking continues to dominate the U.S. approach as troubling questions about Egypt’s trajectory—are Sisi’s policies actually making the problem of terrorism worse? Will the current military-backed authoritarian order give way to another mass upheaval?—are pushed aside.
So, it seems, are other deeper questions about the future of the relationship as the lofty rhetoric of “enduring partnership” provides a comforting veneer of continuity. Steven A. Cook has written compellingly about “the long goodbye” between the United States and Egypt. He is correct: Although both presidents still describe U.S.-Egypt ties as “strategic,” the relationship has been something less than that for some time. The erosion of the genuinely strategic dimension began well before Mubarak’s 2011 ouster. The lynchpin of the alliance has always been the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. But after several decades, that historic joint accomplishment became a distant memory that could no longer provide enough of an overarching, grand shared purpose. A new strategic-level endeavor has been lacking since at least 2000, when the Oslo-era peace process collapsed and the second intifada broke out. The peace process, heavily flawed as it was, was the only area of highly-visible, presidential-level diplomatic collaboration between Cairo and Washington that aimed at transforming the region’s future. (Counterterrorism and security cooperation has always been robust, but is run by intelligence and military officials far out of public view). Throughout the George W. Bush administration, differences over Egypt’s pace of political reform, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza caused constant friction. When President Barack Obama took office he tried hard to turn over a new leaf by reaching out early to Mubarak and by toning down the democracy assistance and human rights criticism that so antagonized Egyptian officials. Some tensions did subside, but with no larger animating goal and plenty of mutual resentments the relationship continued to stagnate in the final years of Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
(See also: Attach Human-Rights Conditions to Aid for Egypt)
The four years since Mubarak’s ouster, of course, have brought new frustrations. Egypt’s post-2011 turmoil exhausted U.S. officials who were accustomed to decades of stability and predictability. Anti-American campaigns that Mubarak likely would have quashed—the criminal prosecution of civil society workers for receiving U.S. funding, including the son of an American cabinet member, vitriolic conspiracy theories in the media against Obama, and the imprisonment of several U.S. citizens for political reasons—severely eroded trust. The United States is acutely aware of its poor standing among the Egyptian public and the role that the Egyptian media plays in stoking anti-American sentiment. There is disappointment over the failure of Egypt’s brief democratic experiment among some U.S. officials who believe (correctly) that a successful transition could have reinvigorated the relationship by fostering shared political values and boosting civil society linkages. Adding to the sense of fatigue, Egypt’s ability to be a decisive U.S. “partner” on key regional issues is very limited nowadays. Post-2011 Egypt is inward-facing, understandably consumed by major security, economic, and political challenges at home (see Egypt’s refusal to actively join the anti-Islamic State military campaign). More broadly, to the Obama administration, Egypt—and the rest of the Arab world—is a low priority in global foreign policy and a region where major investments of U.S. political capital usually bring scant returns.
The sense of resentment and distance is perhaps even greater on Egypt’s side. Some of it is a natural corrective to what many in Egyptian officialdom (and the public) begrudged as Mubarak’s overly close ties with the United States. The desire for a sharper assertion of Egyptian national interests also reflects an understandable yearning—after the popular self-determination manifested in the 2011 uprising—to be treated as an equal party, not a subordinate one. But, as explained to me by several current and former Egyptian officials during my recent visits to Cairo, some in the Egyptian leadership also do not trust the Obama administration specifically. They truly believe that Obama helped to instigate the 2011 uprising, backed the Brotherhood’s ascent to power, and still supports the banned group. There is also bitterness over the United States’ failure to provide meaningful economic aid during Egypt’s time of need after Mubarak’s ouster, its lack of enthusiasm about the military’s 2013 overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi (though the U.S. administration did not directly oppose it, either), and most of all, its suspension of military aid. In Egypt’s view, its military is entitled to receive a continuous $1.3 billion in aid as long as it upholds the 1979 peace treaty and gives the U.S. military fast permission to transit through Egyptian territory, regardless of Egypt’s human rights record. Egyptian officials also believe that the United States cares little about the post-2011 chaos enveloping the region. There is particular bitterness over Libya, now a raging conflict zone on Egypt’s western border that the U.S.-backed NATO campaign helped to create only to see the United States walk away afterwards. Like other governments in the region, Egypt believes it can wait out the Obama administration, confident that it will receive much better treatment by the next U.S. president.
(Read more: The Part of Obama’s Arms-To-Egypt Deal That Matters)
So what is the relationship about? The two countries are linked through common interests and mutual benefits, but with little affection and no shared vision for Egypt’s and the region’s future beyond “stability.” Much of the relationship remains transactional. The United States relies upon Egypt to provide expedited permission for military overflights and passage through the Suez Canal as a key part of American force projection in the Persian Gulf, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan. Washington needs Egypt to fight terrorist groups operating on its territory, such as the Islamic State-affiliate based in northern Sinai, so that the United States does not have to take direct action itself. Such “counterterrorism partnerships” are a guiding principle of Obama’s national security policy. The United States also wants Egypt to maintain peace with Israel, help manage recurrent conflicts between Israel and Palestine, and assist with, or at least not obstruct, other U.S. regional priorities such as the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, in the big picture, Egypt continues to be broadly aligned with Western security and economic interests in the Middle East, even if visible and active cooperation with the United States across the region is rare nowadays. In return for these things, the United States accepts to deal with whatever regime is in place in Cairo and to provide significant military aid.
For its part, Egypt seeks U.S. military aid to maintain its Western-oriented strategic posture. Despite Cairo’s recent efforts to show it does not rely on the United States by diversifying its arms sources through deals with France and Russia, it still sees U.S. military aid as superior. Indeed, American assistance comes entirely as a grant (as opposed to loans) and offers advanced equipment, along with training, maintenance and technical support, and prestige through association with the world’s most powerful military. Egypt also wants U.S. backing in international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, should it decide to accept funding from such institutions, and positive signs from American officials to international investors about the country’s business climate. Finally, for the sake of Egypt’s global reputation, which seems especially important to Sisi, Egypt desires tacit acceptance, and if not active legitimation, of its nondemocratic political order from the most powerful country in the world.
The relationship on the eve of the strategic dialogue is somewhat better than it was a year ago. This is almost entirely because of U.S. preoccupation with other problems in the region and its decisions to back down from policies, such as the partial military aid suspension, that Egypt opposed—not because of any conciliatory steps on Egypt’s part. But bilateral ties hold little potential right now for reinvigoration or expansion. It is not just that the two governments have different narratives on key issues, much unresolved baggage from the past four years, and not nearly enough cultural, educational, and economic linkages between the two peoples. There is a lack of interest at the highest levels. Obama, nearing the end of his term, is disillusioned by the Arab world and seems highly unlikely to do the one thing that would immediately improve relations with Sisi: Never criticize Egypt’s terrible human rights record and lack of democracy again. Sisi, while he prefers smooth relations, does not appear to seek a close relationship with this White House and has few incentives to change his policies since he knows that he does not need American support to survive.
Egypt and the United States will continue to be important to each other, even in the age of the Long Goodbye. The United States still matters to Egypt because the United States is still the most powerful country in the world and thus is every country’s most important relationship. Egypt matters to the United States because of where it is on the map and what it is (the Arab world’s biggest and still most pivotal country and the first to make peace with Israel). This should all seem like enough to create a “strategic” relationship, but it has not been for some time. Certainly, if the two countries can find meaningful ways to cooperate more, especially in economic and cultural realms, they should. But the challenge of this era is to manage a much less special, much less close, more often difficult, relationship effectively.