In reality, both sides, US President Barack Obama's administration and Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's coup regime, have made critical moves that can only be described as counterproductive and mutually offensive, as perceived by each side, resulting in worsening relations between the two countries. At the same time, both recognize that they cannot make a complete break from each other. So, while this is a bitter divorce, it's not a full-fledged nullification of relations. It leaves room for future revisits.
The Obama administration recently announced its decision to cease weapon and military equipment deliveries to Egypt and not to give $260 million in cash as part of US foreign aid as punishment for the military regime failing to bring civilian rule and democracy, with respect for civil rights and the rule of law, to Egypt. The Obama administration was very slow in making this decision, and the intended impact of this cut of US foreign aid to Egypt might now be dulled, if not completely ineffective. The administration should have acted immediately after the military coup took place in early July of 2013, ousting the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi. However, not only did the Obama administration fail to act immediately, it even refused to say the word “coup” for fear of having to instantly put an end to foreign aid based on legally binding provisions in US law that prohibit the provision of aid to coup regimes. By sitting on this decision for so long, the US lost its advantage in dealing with the Sisi government, and, meanwhile, other Persian Gulf Arab states immediately stepped in to fill the financial void, for their own national interests and agendas, to support Gen. Sisi.
In addition, Egypt's military regime has stated that it will look for alternatives to the US. Reuters (Oct. 11) reported: “Egypt's army is exploring its options. ‘The military definitely has plans to diversify its source of weapons which include going to Russia,' said the military source, who did not elaborate.” This confirms the US government's worst fears -- that Egypt will turn to Russia as a new partner. It might even turn to China. But the US's slow decision-making opened the door to this new reality and these calculations.
In fact, Middle East regional actors are not holding any punches regarding US policies, as the Reuters article explains. “After Morsi was deposed, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates promised Egypt a total of $12 billion in loans, grants and fuel shipments. The aid has kept the economy afloat and may give Egypt some policy flexibility.
“‘Compared to Gulf aid, American aid is peanuts. It won't financially affect Egypt and could easily be filled by Gulf countries,' said Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council, an appointed parliament that has only advisory powers.
“‘People in the Gulf do not see [cutting the aid] as a democratic message. Otherwise why is America allowing the Syrian regime to continue killing people every day?'
“Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- Washington's most important allies in the Arab world -- are frustrated with US policy and see Washington as an indecisive superpower.”
On the part of Egypt, the coup regime and its supporters are doing no favors to themselves by vilifying the US. In fact, their response to the decision to cut US foreign aid is full of contradictions and contempt. On the one hand, they have expressed to the US, specifically the Obama administration, that “you can keep your foreign aid. We'll find other partners,” while in the next breath the Egyptian government has strongly condemned this decision.
On the other hand, both sides' communications come with footnotes, recognizing the importance of the decades-long strategic relationship. For the US, it involves access to the Suez Canal and the preservation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement known as the Camp David Accords. For Egypt, it has been about $1.55 billion in annual foreign aid from the US, and most of it allocated to the Egyptian military. Plus, Egyptian military personnel have enjoyed many opportunities for professional military education in the US, medical treatment and joint military exercises with the American armed forces. In the civilian arena, the tourism industry has enjoyed countless American and Western tourists visiting Egypt, providing critical revenues, and the American University in Cairo is one of the best educational institutions in the Middle East, which gives Egypt cutting edge prestige and clout.
Now, the Egyptian military-led government and both pro- and anti-Morsi camps are deeply divided internally, yet have relative consensus regarding their distrust of, and even hatred for, the US. Conspiracy theories in Egypt and the Middle East region have spiraled beyond belief. Reuters describes some of these theories:
“Conspiracy theories about American plans to divide Egypt and the greater Middle East have mushroomed, with some of the plots detailed in diagrams in newspapers.
‘Screw the American aid,' read one banner newspaper headline in red. In one part of Cairo, a poster of the American president with a white beard reads ‘Obama is a terrorist.'
Military officials buy in to some of the conspiracy theories, including one which suggests that US ally Israel wants Islamists in power in the Middle East to keep the region unstable.
‘Islamists ruling Arabs would be enough to ensure that Israel remain the biggest power in the region,' one colonel said.”
There is tremendous irony in this soap opera that is at times painful to watch. General Sisi received his education from the US Army War College. The military student exchange programs embody hope and optimism that those who graduate from such institutions will leave with a better understanding of the United States. If they leave with a less than favorable view of the US, then at a minimum, one hopes for a civil and reasonable view of the US and respect for democracy. In reality, Western countries have pinned far too much hope and optimism on the military and political elites attending their higher educational institutions. They learned the hard way that no matter how much they study in Western universities or even write dissertations on democracy (like Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, did at the London School of Economics), once they return home the intoxicant of wealth and political power, especially if easily inherited, is far too powerful. General Sisi is an example of someone who learned about and experienced firsthand the positive aspects of democracy, civil rights and the rule of law. So is President Morsi, who also studied in the US.
The bottom line is that the slow divorce between the US and Egypt is a shameful spectacle, notwithstanding the other shameful spectacle ongoing currently domestically in Washington, D.C., regarding the US budget, the debt ceiling debacle and the government shutdown. Some US national interests relative to Egypt remain unchanged, like the Suez Canal and the Camp David Accords. However, the need to change the steps to the dance in the US-Egyptian post-coup relationship should have been calculated and implemented back in July. Instead, the Obama administration stumbled over the word “coup” while the Sisi government already calculated its next moves and remained steps ahead. While the US Ambassador to Egypt at the time, Anne Patterson, stood her ground based on the principles of democracy, the Obama administration looked internally divided and lacked consensus on what to do next and how to do it. In the meantime, the Egyptian coup government and its supporters have illustratively shown that they do not appreciate the principles of democracy, nor do they care. And those who do care are marginalized and repressed, and some are describing today's Egypt as far worse than even the Hosni Mubarak era.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” The world seems sorely deficient in applying this lesson today.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.