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When Hoda al-Nasser, the daughter of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, recently deemed the country’s current strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the rightful heir to her father’s political legacy, it was worth taking her at her word. Just like Nasser, Sisi unapologetically seized power in a coup d’état. Also like Nasser, Sisi has followed a path in higher politics that began with a collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood -- he seems to have conspired with President Mohamed Morsi in the removal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in the summer of 2012 -- before changing course and doing everything in his power to crush the Islamist organization. Sisi’s crackdown has already resulted in the deaths and incarceration of thousands of Brotherhood activists, including Morsi, his erstwhile patron.
This historical parallel might seem to bode ill for the relationship between Egypt and the United States. After all, Nasser is remembered today for his unabashed, even chauvinistic patriotism, and most policymakers in Washington are taught that the close relationship that the United States currently enjoys with Egypt traces back to the Camp David accords signed by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. But Washington’s history with Nasser is more auspicious than is generally remembered. Indeed, with some minor adjustments, Washington’s establishment of relations with Nasser’s government can serve as the most promising template for a stable and productive relationship between the United States and Egypt today.
Sisi is no less nationalistic than his predecessor. Nasser spoke of a “role” in the Arab world “in search of a hero” -- a role that Egypt was destined to fulfill -- and Sisi makes essentially the same point in less poetic language. He asserts that Egypt must regain its position as a leader of the Arabs, and by so doing restore Arab power more generally.
It's true that Sisi's rhetoric is more pious than Nasser's avowedly secular pan-Arabism. But that is more a sign of the times than an indicator of a profound difference between the two. Indeed, the foundation for Sisi's indictment against the Brotherhood is that it offers a transnational, rather than a distinctly Egyptian, version of Islamism. A proper Islamism would be based on Egyptian traditions and institutions (including the state-supported Al-Azhar University), and thus be supportive of the country's interests -- and by extension Arab interests as a whole. Anything less would be traitorous, in Sisi's view. At the core of both men's vision lies the projection of strong personal, national, and Arab power.
But Sisi would do well to notice that Nasser, in his early years, at least, was intent on reconciling appeals to Egyptian nationalism with backing from the United States. Nasser knew that he needed American support as a counterbalance to the possibility of British intervention, following the coup, in support of their ally, the deposed King Farouk. He was equally aware that American support would be useful in projecting Egyptian power, both militarily and diplomatically, in the years ahead. Of course, Nasser was careful not to appear to be Washington's puppet. He preferred to give the impression that he was using the Americans without giving anything in return. In one widely circulated (though possibly apocryphal) tale about his dealings with the CIA, Nasser was said to have built the Cairo Tower, which transmitted the Voice of the Arabs radio station, with cash bribes from an American agent that were intended to buy his loyalty. The tall, lean tower was said to represent the young leader “saluting” the United States with his middle finger.
Equally instructive is the fact that the United States tolerated this arrangement. Then, as now, Washington's primary goal in the region was to find a strong leader in Cairo willing to work with the United States. By 1949, U.S. intelligence had deemed that Nasser was such a figure, so Washington threw its weight behind him. It stood in the way of British attempts to roll the 1952 coup back and then, more germane to the contemporary situation, it supported Nasser against democratic opposition forces whose power rose in 1953 and early 1954 in reaction to Nasser’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. In October 1954, Nasser moved to brutally subdue the final remaining element of the opposition, which was the Brotherhood. Washington had originally supported the Brothers in preference to the liberal, secular opposition, which it deemed too weak to govern, but it stood by as thousands of them were killed, imprisoned, or chased into exile.
Eventually, the relationship between Nasser's regime and the United States came undone. The failure had multiple causes. Having assisted Nasser’s rise to power, and then his consolidation of it, the United States got cold feet as tensions between Egypt and Israel rose. Ultimately Nasser’s outsize ambitions -- which increasingly became focused on military engagement in the Arabian Peninsula following a 1962 coup in Yemen -- exceeded what Washington could support, making the lure of Soviet support ever more attractive to Cairo. It is also possible that Nasser had tricked the Americans into believing that he was their man and would help them secure their interests in the Middle East, but from the outset had intended to use and then discard U.S. support.
The U.S.-Egyptian relationship is now essentially back to where it was in 1954, with Washington supporting an emerging military strongman who needs to demonstrate his bona fides to his most important constituency, the military, first, and to the country as a whole second. The challenge for both the United States and Sisi will be to recalibrate their expectations of the relationship so that they focus narrowly on the enduring overlap in strategic interests, rather than on trying to reconstitute the more expansive alliance that they built over the last 30 years. The United States needs a strong Egypt upon which to anchor its drifting policy in the region, while Sisi needs arms and money to fend off domestic challengers. The future is bright, so long as both sides are willing to shed aspects of the relationship beyond those basic goals.
Sisi already seems to be following that game plan. Like Nasser, he has distanced himself publicly from Washington while doing everything to ensure its most important support. Consider his government’s response to the announcement in October of a temporary suspension of U.S. military assistance for procurement of F-16s, Abrams tanks, and Apache helicopters. Sisi declared that the decision would hurt the United States more than Egypt. But he said nothing to risk the discontinuation of assistance for Egypt’s counterterrorism activities, especially in the Sinai, which are of far greater and more immediate importance to the credibility of the military and its leader.
Sisi has, to be sure, allowed the government-owned and government-controlled media to become much more critical of the United States than it was under his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. But he has been careful not to cross the real red line for Washington, which is Egypt rejecting in word or deed its peace with Israel. Indeed, under Sisi, the Egyptian military has not only destroyed Hamas’ tunnels under the Sinai-Gaza border but has stepped up broader counterterrorism cooperation with Israel while refraining from strong criticism of even the prickly Netanyahu government.
The key to making this a sustainable strategy may be a continued reform of the Egyptian military. As part of the reconfiguration of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, arms sales to Egypt will need to be altered and possibly reduced, to ensure that they are designed to meet Egypt's real security threats, rather than the pecuniary interests of people on either side of the delivery chain. Procurement supported by U.S. Foreign Military Funding will have to shift from the heavy emphasis on fighter planes, attack helicopters, and tanks to equipment more suitable for threats posed by insurgencies, terrorism, border penetration, peacekeeping, natural disasters, maritime challenges, and the like. A leaner, more agile military of this sort would be more capable of deployment in the region in pursuit of Egyptian and, not coincidentally, American interests.
Mubarak had long feared that downsizing and professionalizing the military in this way would cause the officer corps to rebel, and that being seen to serve U.S. regional interests would undercut his fragile domestic legitimacy. The result was a massive military that became bloated and soft, preparing in Godot-like fashion for a war with Israel that would thankfully never come, and which was unable to project its power elsewhere. Sisi is not likely to share Mubarak's fears. He has already retired off a substantial portion of the senior officer corps who benefitted most from systematic corruption. His appeal is to younger officers who he may calculate will remain loyal out of a shared sense of mission, rather than because of patronage. A leaner military capable of projecting Egyptian power could become essential to maintaining Sisi's popularity among the public. (For Washington's part, a mobile Arab expeditionary force capable of intervening in trouble spots in pursuit of mutually agreed objectives would be a major boon in the region.)
Of course, even if the United States and Egypt achieve a new stability, there's no telling how long it would last. Just as in the Nasser era, both sides may end up wanting too much. Having assisted the reconfiguration of the Egyptian military and the economic resuscitation of the country, Washington could become bossy, insensitive to Egyptian desires generally and the political needs of its rulers in particular. And it may only be a matter of time until a stronger and more nationalistic Egypt is tempted to flex its muscles, which is sure to elicit unpredictable reactions in the region.
Much will come down to Sisi himself, and to how far he decides to follow in Nasser's footsteps. He is clearly his predecessor's equal in his obsession with power, his tactical finesse at acquiring it, and his jealous and ruthless guarding of it. But Sisism is only just beginning to coalesce into an apparent ideology, one that draws its legitimacy through reference to nationalism, an established and conservative Islam, and a strong sense of conservative morality. Although there is nothing inherent in this outlook that would contradict a strong relationship between the United States and Egypt, that was also the view that Washington had of Nasserism back in the early 1950s. The central paradox of that previous relationship -- that the strong leader supported by Washington ultimately had to turn on his benefactor to assert his strength -- is certainly worth keeping in mind this time.