Middle East Notes and Comment: The Right Debate about Egypt
April 22, 2016
Washington is engaged in several debates about Egypt as the country takes an increasingly authoritarian turn. Some are trying to shape the right conditions on U.S. assistance to Egypt to help open up Egyptian society. Others consider Egyptian authoritarianism a foregone conclusion, and they are exploring ways to create more distance—either in order to clear the U.S. conscience, ensure that the United States is “on the right side of history,” or win the support of Egypt’s people by supporting them over those who oppress them. Still others argue that the United States should be supporting Egypt wholeheartedly as it fights radicals.
But these are the wrong debates to have. The U.S.-Egyptian relationship is strained, and worse times are likely ahead. The important debate is this: what are the consequences of the United States losing a close relationship with Egypt, and what should the United States be doing now to mitigate those consequences?
It sometimes seems hard to recall just why the United States maintains a close relationship with Egypt. Historically, the country’s pivot from pro-Soviet alignment to a pro-U.S. one in the Cold War was a strategic masterstroke, and the 1979 peace treaty with Israel fundamentally changed the threat environment in the Middle East. In more than 35 years since, the U.S. military has forged close ties with its Egyptian counterparts as U.S. forces transit the country by ship and by air, U.S. and Egyptian intelligence services have developed close ties on counterterrorism, and U.S. diplomats have benefited from Egypt’s cultural and intellectual heft in the Middle East. After all, when Egypt seemed revolutionary, the Middle East seemed revolutionary, and when Egypt seemed like it was drifting in an Islamist direction, the region did as well. U.S. businesses have invested billions of dollars in Egypt, and U.S. companies trade billions more in goods and services every year. Egypt’s population, its regional weight, and its strategic location have all made it a valuable partner.
More than five years of political turmoil in Egypt have strained the bilateral relationship. Egyptian officials complain that the United States has meddled in Egyptian politics and held up military assistance in an effort to boost its leverage. Senior Egyptians angrily accuse the Obama administration of seeking to undermine Egypt. U.S. officials privately talk about the Egyptian government’s recklessness and incompetence.
Most of the U.S. debate seeks to influence Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Yet, there are increasing signs that Sisi may not be in complete control of his own government, especially as his popularity is waning. Whispers emerge of rivalries between the country’s various intelligence and security services, and the tiny presidential staff seems increasingly isolated.
Sisi was riding highest when he was making the case that the country faced an imminent threat from the Muslim Brotherhood, and he was its savior. As the Muslim Brotherhood threat has receded in Egyptians’ eyes, as the economy continues to sputter, and as an increasingly broad swath of the Egyptian elite have concluded that Sisi has contempt for coalition building and seeks only compliance, criticism has been rising. Sisi’s response has been to double down on security, whipping up fear that the country’s enemies lurk everywhere. In a nationally televised speech on February 24, he admonished Egyptians, “Don’t listen to anyone but me. I am dead serious. Don’t listen to anyone but me.” It is not a voice of confidence.
An increasingly harsh internal security environment will make it more difficult for the United States to sustain close relations. While Egypt has never been a liberal democracy, growing efforts to use extraordinary and extrajudicial means to cow liberal opposition voices and suppress civil society increasingly affect Egyptians with close ties to the United States. Disappearances, apparent assassinations of political opponents, and mass incarcerations have become endemic. Egypt argues it needs to be able to hit opponents harder and U.S. officials argue the effort needs to be smarter. The sides are diverging.
It is possible to imagine that Sisi will sufficiently alienate key players in Egypt and be forced from power himself. Such players could conceivably come from within the military itself, or from the security services. Should that happen, it seems unlikely that Egypt’s domestic conditions would improve in the near term. In fact, some groups would likely try to capitalize on the uncertainty for their own gain. Regardless, whoever assumes power would be a difficult partner for the United States in the initial period. This is especially true if the events trigger imposition of the U.S. law that bars assistance to a government that arose through a military coup.
The third condition to consider is if Egypt simply becomes ungovernable. We have already seen early signs of this in the Sinai, where Egypt’s difficulty protecting international peacekeepers has resulted in a decision to redeploy those forces from their largest base, near Gaza. While the Islamic State group does not appear to threaten to bring down the government of Egypt, the government’s inability to act effectively against an array of threats would diminish the value of close ties for the United States.
What would a less Egypt-centered U.S. strategy in the Middle East look like? On the military side, the United States would need to account for more circuitous routings to position its troops around the world. It would need to deepen intelligence cooperation with other allies, and it would need to find ways to reassure Israel should Egyptian-Israeli ties stumble from their present warmth. An unsettled Egypt would likely unsettle a wide range of U.S. allies on the governmental and public level—partly out of fear of the consequences of a less stable Egypt, and partly out of fear of a less supportive United States. This would require more attention from senior U.S. officials, and require a U.S. ability to respond to a wider array of contingencies.
One might argue that the United States is already too exposed in the Middle East, and that pulling back from Egypt should be at the core of a shift away from the region. With so many U.S. allies reliant on the region for energy, and so many threats to allies emerging from the region, such a pivot would be hard to execute without profoundly affecting the U.S. role on the world stage.