Last Tuesday afternoon the National Security Council announced that the Obama administration was releasing the long-delayed shipments of M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles, and F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian armed forces. The decision proved to be immediately controversial and was swiftly denounced on social media as “back to business as usual” with the Egyptians. It certainly seems that way. Reportedly, the administration based its decision on Egypt’s own deteriorating security situation, which has coincided with wars raging in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The regional political environment may be novel, but the White House’s rationale—security—is reminiscent of a time in the not so distant past when Washington only raised Egypt’s dismal human rights record in a perfunctory way. The most important things then (and now) were keeping the Suez Canal open, the Islamists down, and the peace with Israel secure. Yet for all of the apparent continuities in Washington’s approach to Egypt’s president, from Hosni Mubarak to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it is not back to business as usual, and that’s not because the administration will be cutting off Cairo’s access to cash flow financing—a credit card for weapons—in fiscal year 2018. Rather, it is not business as usual because business as usual is not really an option.
Before moving on, let me reiterate that I am basically agnostic about the military aid to Egypt, though I am on record saying that Washington should release the aid and rebuild trust with the Egyptian Ministry of Defense in order to meet the immediate challenge of violent extremism more effectively. Egypt is profoundly repressive and the nationalist paroxysm that has been underway since the summer of 2013 has created an environment opposite of what people had hoped for when they turned out in Tahrir Square and elsewhere across the country in early 2011. The grim record notwithstanding, withholding military assistance has not made Egypt more democratic or less unstable. Other smart people have different views, however.
So why isn’t it back to business as usual? For anyone who needs reminding, it is April 2015 and not April 1975. It is not even April 1985 when U.S. economic assistance amounted to something in the neighborhood of 10 percent of Egypt’s economy or April 1995, a time when everyone still thought Egypt had an important role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The U.S.-Egypt relationship has been in search of a purpose well before Mubarak fell from office five Februarys ago. The bases for the strategic relationship have weakened or disappeared: The Soviet Union and the threat it might penetrate the eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa ceased to exist in 1991; the United States has access to military installations throughout the Persian Gulf, which has reduced Egypt to secondary roles in recent military campaigns; and peace with Israel will remain secure even if the current close coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and Egyptian Armed Forces does not last. The highlight of the strategic relationship came twenty-four years ago when Mubarak deployed thirty-five thousand soldiers—over the objections of a lot of Egyptians across the political spectrum—to take part in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. Looking back over the last two decades, it is remarkable that the bilateral relationship ran on bureaucratic inertia for so long even as a parade of think tankers and others sought to divine a new way forward. To my knowledge, the best anyone could ever come up with was “trade not aid,” which is a laudable goal, but not the stuff of strategic relationships.
Despite the political crises and instability of the post–Mubarak period, the last four years were a wasted opportunity to redefine the relationship. Sure, the Suez Canal will always be important and Washington’s commitment to Israeli security will require good ties with Cairo, but there is not much else. Besides the Egyptian demand that Washington support Sisi unconditionally and the American demand that the Egyptians actually live up to their own commitments to uphold the principles of Tahrir Square, American and Egyptian officials have a hard time articulating what they want. Neither party is going to live up to the expectations of the other.
Critics will argue that the decision to release the weapons to Egypt means that Washington has folded on the democracy front. It depends on your definition of “fold,” though. President Barack Obama came to office ambivalent about democracy promotion. After all, he made nice with Mubarak, and his brief reference to democracy in his famous June 2009 Cairo speech was basically, “Democracy would be great, but it is up to you folks.” In any event, no one should read too much in the administration’s position on security assistance to Egypt. In addition to the friction over Egypt’s domestic political environment, Washington and Cairo tend to view the major regional issues—Libya, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—differently. Not only does this drive the Egyptians (and the Israelis, Saudis, and Emiratis) somewhat crazy, it also encourages them to explore alternatives to the relationship with Washington. The United Arab Emirates is now Egypt’s strategic partner, more than making up for Washington’s diminishing diplomatic, political, and financial support. Instead of extracting strategic rents from Moscow or Washington as Cairo has done since the 1950s, Abu Dhabi—and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Riyadh—will fund Egypt’s ceaseless quest for development. The only place where Washington has no peer is on the military front, which is why the Egyptians have made it a policy to exhaust the Obama administration on the issue until it gave in. Yet even here the Egyptians began exploring their options as far back as 2010 when they flirted with the Pakistanis over a Sino-Pak knockoff of the F-16 called the JF-17. More recently, the Ministry of Defense has signed agreements to purchase French and Russian military equipment. Whether these deals actually happen is less important that what they represent.
It may be hard to see, but the United States and Egypt are diverging. Washington and Cairo have different priorities and see the world differently. The military assistance, which may go on for some time yet, is the legacy of another fading era. The emergence of ISIS and other violent extremist groups has delayed, but hardly forestalled the long U.S.-Egypt goodbye.