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For decades, the partnership between Egypt and the United States was a linchpin of the American role in the Middle East. Today, it is a mere vestige of a bygone era. There are no longer any compelling reasons for Washington to sustain especially close ties with Cairo. What was once a powerfully symbolic alliance with clear advantages for both sides has become a nakedly transactional relationship—and one that benefits the Egyptians more than the Americans. The time has come for both sides to recognize that reality and for the United States to fundamentally alter its approach to Egypt: downgrading the priority it places on the relationship, reducing the level of economic and military support it offers Cairo, and more closely tying the aid it does deliver to political, military, and economic reforms that would make Egypt a more credible partner.
The contemporary U.S.-Egyptian relationship began in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and was shaped by the logic of the Cold War, with Egypt switching from the Soviet to the American camp in return for various kinds of support. During the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, other factors, such as cooperation in the Middle East peace process and the struggle against jihadist terrorism, provided new rationales for continuing the partnership. But at this point, after a popular uprising followed by an authoritarian relapse in Cairo, and with the peace process moribund and jihadism now a chronic condition, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship has become an anachronism that distorts American policy in the region.
This is not to say that the United States gets nothing out of the relationship. U.S. naval ships enjoy fast-track access to the Suez Canal (albeit with the payment of a hefty premium), and Egypt allows American military aircraft to fly over Egyptian airspace, both of which help Washington project power in the Middle East and manage its military deployments. Egypt also provides some diplomatic support for American regional policies and remains a potentially valuable partner in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), to which militants in neighboring Libya and in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have pledged allegiance. But such benefits do not justify the attention and resources that Washington lavishes on Egypt, which is scheduled to receive $1.3 billion in military aid and up to $150 million in economic assistance from the United States this year, making Egypt the second-largest recipient of American largess. And even if Washington cut back its aid, Cairo would have plenty of reasons to continue its cooperation.
To be sure, the United States would profit greatly from close ties with a strong, prosperous Egypt that had a representative government and a capable military—a country that could act as an anchor for regional security and counterterrorist efforts, help contain Iran, and live up to its historical role as a leader of and model for the Arab world. But such an Egypt does not exist today and seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon. In the two years since leading a military coup, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has given little reason to hope that he can sustainably grow the country’s economy or improve basic services and security. Meanwhile, he has cracked down on almost all forms of dissent and opposition. The Sisi regime has simply not provided a credible road map for Egypt’s future.
There are no longer any compelling reasons for Washington to sustain especially close ties with Cairo.
When Sisi removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from office in July 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama refused to label the act a military coup, in part because that would have required, under U.S. law, immediately cutting off aid to Cairo. Still, in an interview with CNN the following month, Obama conceded that the relationship could not “return to business as usual.” But for the most part, it has. Although Obama has ended Egypt’s ability to obtain military hardware on credit and has placed new limits on how Egypt can spend the U.S. aid it receives, the United States will continue to supply Egypt with $1.3 billion every year for the foreseeable future, with very few strings attached. Last August, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cairo to take part in the first “strategic dialogue” that American officials have held with their Egyptian counterparts since 2009, announcing that the United States would soon resume joint military exercises with Egypt, which Obama suspended in 2013. As Kerry arrived, the U.S. embassy in Cairo publicly hailed the delivery of eight American-made F-16s to Egypt’s air force.
This tacit resumption of the pre-coup relationship has done little to enhance regional security, give the United States additional leverage, or curb Sisi’s autocratic tendencies. Meanwhile, it has implicated the United States in Egypt’s repression of Islamists, secular activists, and journalists who have dared to challenge or even merely criticize Sisi. And Washington has seen its relative influence in Cairo diminish even further, as wealthy Gulf states have flooded Egypt with an estimated $30 billion in various forms of economic assistance since Sisi took power.
The United States must sometimes make bargains with authoritarian regimes. And as extremist forces foment disorder and chaos in the Middle East, it might seem reasonable to mend fences with traditional allies in the region. However, for such compromises to be worth it, the strategic benefits must outweigh the costs, and Washington’s resumed embrace of Cairo does not pass that test. Continuing with the current policy would be a triumph of hope over experience. The United States should instead change course, scaling back the scope of its relationship with Egypt and reducing the exaggerated attention the country receives while placing stricter conditions on U.S. aid. Washington hardly needs to cut Cairo loose, but the United States should stop coddling it.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the Arab oil embargo of Israel’s supporters that followed marked the beginning of a historic realignment of both the state system in the Middle East and Arab relations with the United States. That realignment was completed with the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978 and a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel the following year. U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s pledges of sustained American economic and military aid to Egypt were a key factor in persuading Egyptian President Anwar al- Sadat to make peace with Israel. The deal was a diplomatic masterstroke. It pulled Egypt into the U.S. orbit, eliminated the possibility of another large-scale conventional Arab-Israeli war (and thus the risk of great-power conflict in the region), and created a more stable and sustainable backdrop for international oil markets—and, by extension, the global economy.
For the duration of the Cold War and during its immediate aftermath, U.S.-Egyptian security cooperation and coordination flourished, reaching a peak when Egypt participated in the multinational effort to liberate Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990. And with the advent of renewed Arab-Israeli peace efforts in the early 1990s, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship became even more valuable to Washington, as Egypt emerged as the Arab state most fully engaged in the process.
Meanwhile, at home, the authoritarian regime led by Sadat and then, after Sadat’s 1981 assassination, his successor, Hosni Mubarak, entrenched itself. Over time, human rights advocates and Egyptian dissidents called for Washington to use its leverage to press Mubarak for reforms. But as the threat of jihadist terrorism grew, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials decided not to push too hard, which could risk diminishing Egypt’s cooperation on counterterrorism.
Then came the Arab uprisings, during which Mubarak was ousted in the wake of a broad-based popular mobilization. In 2012, a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through democratic elections, only to catastrophically overreach. That government, led by Morsi, ultimately fell to a putsch mounted by the military and the country’s still powerful authoritarian security establishment—a coup that was supported by mass demonstrations against Morsi’s rule and aided in no small part by the Muslim Brotherhood’s intransigence in the face of public opposition to its agenda.
Obama pledged not to return to "business as usual.” But for the most part, he has.
The result of all the turmoil, both in Egypt and the region at large, has been a far more organic alignment of Egyptian and Israeli interests than anything American diplomatic bribery could achieve. Indeed, some Egyptian and Israeli leaders boast that their relations with each other are now stronger than their ties to the United States. That might be hyperbole, but it is clear that U.S. aid is no longer the glue that binds the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, and it pales beside the amounts given to Cairo by the worried monarchies of the Gulf.
Egypt has an interest in pursuing counterterrorism for its own reasons, moreover, not simply out of a desire to curry favor with the United States, and its military is no longer a major factor in security issues beyond its borders. In short, the regional landscape has been transformed, and Egypt has been left behind. Despite its large population and historical importance, Egypt is no longer an influential regional player. Instead, it is a problem to be managed.
Even in the heyday of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation, the two countries did not see eye to eye on many issues. But the current gap between their worldviews and priorities is larger than at any time in the past.
Perhaps the most visceral expression of this phenomenon is the way in which anti-Americanism—always latent in Egyptian society, media, and politics—has exploded beyond its traditional boundaries to become a core feature of political discourse and official propaganda in Egypt. Throughout the Mubarak years, anti-Americanism was a common staple of regime-affiliated media. Such official and officially encouraged rhetoric served to inoculate the regime against a broad array of criticisms of its close relations with the Americans, particularly during the Bush-era “war on terror,” when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the CIA’s use of torture, Washington’s indefinite detention of terrorist suspects in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the United States’ unwavering support for Israel deepened public antipathy to the United States. Criticism of the United States was pointed but stayed within clear boundaries.
The current gap between American and Egyptian worldviews and priorities is larger than at any time in the past.
During Sisi’s time in power, however, a categorically different kind of anti-Americanism—vitriolic, paranoid, and warped by conspiracy theories—has come to dominate Egyptian media. State-backed media outlets have published scurrilous, bizarre stories alleging extensive U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Sisi’s Islamist opponents—not only the Muslim Brotherhood but even ISIS.
Not only does Sisi’s regime tolerate such conspiracy theories, but elements of the security establishment even promote them as part of an attempt to sell Egypt as a regional bulwark against Washington’s supposed goal of dividing and dominating the Arab world. Earlier this year, Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, the former commander of the Egyptian navy and the current head of the Suez Canal Authority, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, the Egyptian military thwarted a potential U.S. military intervention. Two U.S. frigates “were besieged by the navy and were forced to withdraw from [Egypt’s] territorial waters,” Mamish claimed. “It was important to show the Americans that the Egyptian military was highly diligent and prepared to deter any intervention,” he explained.
Incendiary rhetoric such as this is particularly rankling given that many Egyptian military leaders, including Sisi himself, have received training at U.S. military institutions as participants in a program designed to increase the professionalism of the armed forces of American allies and partners. Yet this extensive, decades-long effort has not produced the hoped-for doctrinal or structural shifts within the Egyptian armed forces nor increased the competence of Egypt’s military leadership. As a result, there is not much close cooperation, confidence, or trust between the two militaries. This gap is so large now that the United States has made no effort to include Egypt in an operational role in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS military campaign, despite the obvious need for Arab military partners.
Indeed, when it comes to fighting Islamist extremists, even some members of the U.S. defense establishment have come to see Egypt’s repressive tactics as counterproductive, since they tend to further radicalize militants and undermine international efforts to curb militancy in the region. The United States remains concerned about the real and serious terrorist threats Egypt faces, including the risk that formerly non-violent Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which renounced its historical use of violence decades ago, could reverse course or splinter, with breakaway factions turning to terrorism and antistate violence. But the Sisi regime has demonstrated a dangerous inability or unwillingness to differentiate between Islamist actors, lumping together the hitherto generally nonviolent members of the Muslim Brotherhood with the brutal extremists of ISIS. The mainstreaming of regressive and sectarian ideologies such as the Brotherhood’s would hardly serve U.S. interests. But the United States rightly sees Sisi’s forceful repression of all opposition as a destabilizing factor for the region and a boost to the radicalizing efforts of militants.
Although the acrimony and strains in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship are on full display, U.S. officials are understandably wary of making dramatic changes to long-standing U.S. policies in the Arab world, particularly at a moment of regional disorder and instability. Many in Washington share well-founded concerns about the potential destabilizing effect of political violence in Egypt; some even worry about the more remote possibility of state failure. But such fears are built on overestimations of Washington’s impact on Egyptian politics. Egyptian leaders have consistently rejected U.S. advice throughout the post-Mubarak period, and a restructuring of bilateral ties is unlikely to have a significant effect on Egypt’s internal stability.
Some proponents of maintaining the status quo argue that a U.S. shift away from Egypt would further alienate influential American allies in the Arab world, many of which are dispirited by Washington’s limited engagement in the Syrian civil war and troubled by the Obama administration’s push for the Iranian nuclear deal. This is a legitimate concern, but the fallout could be contained in much the same way that the United States assuaged Arab allies uneasy about the nuclear deal with Iran: by increasing direct U.S. security cooperation with Arab states.
Regional turmoil has produced a more organic alignment of Egyptian and Israeli interests than anything American diplomatic bribery could achieve.
Other advocates for continuing on the present path claim that Sisi is a different kind of Egyptian leader, more willing to confront the problem of Islamist extremism and more focused on the need for real economic reform. They point to his calls for a “religious revolution” to combat extremism within Islam and were encouraged when Sisi remarked that it is “inconceivable that the thought that [Egyptians] hold most sacred should cause the entire nation to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.” Those words were notable, but they served mostly to highlight Egypt’s tragedy: the country and the region as a whole are in desperate need of alternatives to the regressive and sectarian vision of most of the Arab world’s Islamists. But by yoking the call for reform to repression, authoritarianism, and hypernationalism, Sisi is merely repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, stoking the very radicalism he seeks to eliminate. As for the economy, the highest priority for the regime, Sisi lacks credible plans for development that would create equitable growth.
The most powerful arguments against restructuring the relationship are based on the fear that a spurned Egypt would stop cooperating with the U.S. military and thus stymie Washington’s ability to project power in the region. According to multiple U.S. officials, in recent years, when Cairo has sought to express its displeasure with Washington, it has delayed granting permission for U.S. aircraft to fly over Egyptian airspace, temporarily complicating American military planning and logistics. In light of the ongoing and open-ended U.S. campaign against ISIS, such delays have panicked Pentagon planners, who are accustomed to preferential treatment. But although Sisi’s regime might be willing to occasionally push back against U.S. demands for access, Egypt can’t afford to be too aggressive, since doing so angers not just the Americans but also the Gulf states that have become Egypt’s main patrons—and that are counting on U.S. military power to not only protect the region from ISIS but also serve as their overall security guarantor. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will not sit idly by if Egypt drags its feet on U.S. requests for logistical support and endangers the mechanisms that ensure Gulf security, and Sisi cannot afford to unduly antagonize them; as Sisi himself has stated, the security of the Gulf states is an “integral part of Egyptian national security.”
For the United States, military aid to Egypt has long been understood as the central pillar of a broad and close relationship with the Arab world’s most populous nation—a means of leverage and a source of influence over not only the Egyptian military but also the broader contours of Egyptian political life. But in reality, U.S. aid has not been successful in producing a professionalized and effective Egyptian military. Nor has it encouraged Egyptian leaders to share Washington’s worldview or strategic priorities. And it certainly has not had a particularly positive effect on the country’s political trajectory: foreign military funding has proved wholly ineffective in pushing Egypt toward democratic reform.
In the future, therefore, American aid should be tightly focused on assisting the modernization and professionalization of the Egyptian military and should be made wholly contingent on evidence that Egypt takes those matters seriously. In March, the Obama administration announced that Egypt’s future purchases of U.S. military hardware must be specifically tied to counterterrorism, protecting Egypt’s borders, combating militants in the Sinai, or maritime security. But it remains unclear how the United States will determine whether any prospective purchase meets the new criteria.
Washington should make it perfectly clear that its military aid is not connected to a push for Egypt to embrace political reforms, much less democratize. Targeting the aid more narrowly and focusing it on clear and relatively modest goals will allow Washington to significantly reduce the overall amount of military financing it provides to Cairo. The level of aid should accurately reflect the current importance of the bilateral relationship, which now ranks far below U.S. relations with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Lowering the total annual amount from $1.3 billion to around $500 million would express U.S. displeasure with the status quo while adequately serving the near-term security needs of the United States, continuing to signal an American commitment to Egypt, and conferring a certain level of political status on the Egyptian government and military.
Such a reduction would not threaten the training and technology transfers the Egyptian military values, nor would it harm intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries, which would continue on the basis of mutual necessity. To cushion the blow to U.S. arms manufacturers that such a change would entail, the United States should consider diverting future military assistance to more reliable allies, such as Jordan; or to partners that need help far more urgently than Egypt, such as Iraq; or to states in the region that are transitioning to democracy more successfully, such as Tunisia.
But the United States should leave open the possibility that aid to Egypt could be restored to previous levels if Egypt undertakes serious political liberalization, begins credible efforts at inclusive and sustainable economic change, and initiates a program of genuine military modernization. Such reforms would justify a strategic U.S.-Egyptian relationship and enhance regional security and could serve as the foundation for a stable, democratic, pluralistic, and prosperous Egypt that would provide the Arab world with a much-needed alternative to its failed political models.
It is hard to imagine Egypt taking any of those steps in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, if Washington decides to proceed with an outdated approach to Cairo, the result will be constant tension, friction, and frustration, as both sides’ expectations go unfulfilled. “Business as usual” will do nothing to alter Egypt’s negative trajectory and will further bind the United States to an unreliable partner.