The Egyptian government’s decision to press criminal charges against U.S. citizens working for pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations is threatening to undermine the decades-old U.S.-Egypt relationship. "The deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Egypt was inevitable" after a popular uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak from power a year ago on February 11, says CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook. The crisis over the U.S. NGOs in Egypt, he says, "suggests that Egyptian military officers, politicians, and others have a domestic political interest in having this fight with the United States." Cook says the post-Mubarak Egypt wants a different kind of relationship with the United States, one that is free of aid, and recommends that Washington wind down its aid to the country. The Egyptian military’s action against the NGOs aimed at promoting democracy also raises questions over the military’s intentions and its commitment to a democratic Egypt, Cook notes.
There seems to be a certain amount of chaos going on in Egypt, including a potential rupture with the United States. Can you summarize what’s happening?
The situation in Egypt is unstable and uncertain. The widespread belief that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is in control of this situation has turned out to be not entirely the case. The deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Egypt was inevitable in the post-Mubarak Egypt. This crisis over the NGOs, in which some [nineteen] Americans are supposed to go to trial for various offenses, suggests that Egyptian military officers, politicians, and others have a domestic political interest in having this fight with the United States even with all the aid that we give to Egypt, which in real terms does not amount to a tremendous amount any longer.
It was a lot in the mid-1980s when we used to give about $ 2.2 billion a year and the Egyptian economy was not as well developed as it is now. Right now, there’s a compelling political interest on the part of the Supreme Council and judges, political entrepreneurs like the minister of international cooperation, Faiza Abou el-Naga, who has been playing this role for a long time. She’s a spokeswoman for the crackdown on the Americans and has been playing the anti-American nationalist card for quite some time. This is an issue that resonates with quite a lot of Egyptians who are opposed to American aid to Egypt.
The U.S. arranged the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which got Egypt back all the territories it had lost in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, plus Egypt got a guarantee of more than $ 2 billion a year in foreign aid. You would think the United States and Egypt would be best buddies, but apparently that’s not the case.
The peace treaty is seen very differently in Egypt than it is in the United States. In the United States, we have this iconic photo of President Jimmy Carter and President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin shaking hands together after the signing of the treaty on the White House lawn. But over time, the treaty has not been seen in the same kind of positive light in Egypt that it continues to be seen in the United States and the West more generally.
The deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Egypt was inevitable in the post-Mubarak Egypt.
The Egyptians haven’t enjoyed the prosperity they were promised as a result of the treaty. The Israelis never kept their word about seriously negotiating with the Palestinians, which was a part of the Camp David Accords in 1978. Egyptians see the treaty as a separate, shameful peace, which was boycotted by other Arab states until Jordan finally agreed to a peace treaty in 1994. Egyptians see their treaty as essentially releasing the Israelis from having to worry about their southern border so that the Israelis can pursue their interests in the region unencumbered. That’s the Egyptian view, and it is a situation which has made the Egyptians feel weak.
To be sure, Mubarak aligned his policies with the United States. That’s abundantly clear, but at the same time, domestically, the regime whipped up a lot of anti-American sentiment. The views on the peace treaty are not the result of regime manipulation. This is the way people have felt, and in the post-Mubarak Egypt that is more open than previously, these kinds of views and feelings about the United States are more likely to be felt in Egyptian politics.
Since the Egyptian revolution last January, there was a concern in the United States that this might lead eventually to the breaking of the peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptians have denied that, but the effect of the popular vote could lead to a new Islamic government taking shape. Do you think there might be a movement to abrogate the treaty?
I don’t think that the Egyptians’ unhappiness with the peace treaty or the Egyptians’ unhappiness with the U.S.-Egypt relationship is a function of Islamic politics. It’s not the function of the political prowess that we see from the Muslim Brotherhood or even the Salafi al-Nour party. These are sentiments that are felt across Egypt, given what the situation has been over the course of the last thirty years.
It’s unclear what might happen with regard to the peace treaty. There was a poll done last summer that showed more than 50 percent of Egyptians wanted to see renegotiation of certain aspects of the treaty. Then there was a number that wanted to break the treaty outright. So at the very least, Egyptians are seeking to change their relationship with Israel. This was bound to happen, and it’s of tremendous concern to the United States.
The peace between Egypt and Israel has been a cornerstone of the American approach and American foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s. This would be a tremendous setback. That being said, I don’t think the Egyptians, given the current political uncertainty and instability, are really in a position to take on the Israelis in any kind of effective material way. That’s not to say that we should pooh-pooh the notion that the treaty could be broken, but in practical terms, Egyptians are in no position to challenge the Israelis militarily.
Egyptians are really focused on their domestic political situation. You referred to this as a revolution. It doesn’t technically meet the criteria for a revolution. The revolutionary groups that are still out in the streets in Egypt know that, and that is why they have turned themselves into a permanent revolution, recognizing that the SCAF and people like Faiza Abou el-Naga and others are holdovers from the Mubarak era. The "revolutionaries" want to see a greater change. This is what is occupying the minds of Egyptians.
Certainly among those groups, there is opposition to the United States and to Israel, and that’s what in part is driving what we’re seeing now with the NGO situation. There’s a broad sense of opposition to the United States. But it’s complicated, because the revolutionary groups aren’t necessarily opposed to these NGOs as these NGOs are working towards a more democratic Egypt. But they’re broadly opposed to what they perceive to be U.S. interference in Egyptian politics through aid, which they see as only benefiting the SCAF and these holdovers from the Mubarak era.
All around the world the United States has NGOs financed by either private or government funds trying to improve human rights and democracy. You would think, with the democratic revolution in Egypt, that these NGOs would be warmly welcomed. Explain this contradiction.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces claims that they are paving the way for a more democratic Egypt and that politics is not part of their portfolio. So you would think that they would welcome the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both of which are part of the National Endowment for Democracy, which receives [U.S.] federal funding in the same way that the Egyptian military receives [U.S.] federal funding. You would think that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would see these groups as assets in helping them pave the way for a more democratic Egypt. Thus, their response to the NGOs is a clear indication that in fact, that is not what their ultimate goal is.
The Egyptian authorities cooked up a number of accusations [against the U.S.-based NGOs] that make no sense. This episode encapsulates the problems and contradictions of the U.S.-Egypt relationship post-Mubarak and even before the uprising. This is a relationship that at one time had a tremendous amount of promise. It was built on solid strategic foundations, preventing Soviet penetration of the region, widening the circle of Arab-Israeli peace efforts, and helping the United States in the event of a conflict in the Persian Gulf. Those reasons for the relationship no longer really exist in the ways that they did thirty years ago.
The key to actually having a better relationship with the Egyptians over time is to wind down the aid program.
Because of the dramatic political changes in Egypt over the course of the last year, we’re looking at something completely new. Yet we in the United States are still acting as if it’s business as usual with Egypt. We need to shift our thinking about what is best for U.S. interests in the region and in Egypt.
Do you think the United States should offer to pull these NGOs out of Egypt and also stop the aid program that’s been going on since 1979?
The Egyptians have indicated that they don’t want this kind of aid. In addition to IRI and NDI, there’s also the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has a very big operation in Egypt. But the Egyptians seem to not want this aid. It creates tension in the relationship. It gives Egyptians an excuse to blame us for their shortcomings, even though we’ve done great things in Egypt over the course of many years, particularly on the tactical level: helping Egyptians develop infrastructure, in public health, in helping to provide rural electrification, and all kinds of terrific things.
But this has become so politicized that it can be a source of instability in the relationship, and perhaps we should wind down the aid mission or significantly reduce it in a way that doesn’t give the Egyptians an opportunity to play politics with it. We can shift that money to places where this work would actually be welcomed and is desperately needed. This would be part of a natural process in which Egypt and the United States are going to diverge, which was inevitable given the changes that have gone on in Egypt over the course of the last year.
The Obama administration has to tell Congress whether they are endorsing further aid to Egypt. Will further aid be appropriated?
This is perhaps one of the only tools that the United States has in order to try to influence the behavior of the Egyptians. My guess is that the administration and Congress won’t try to cut the aid completely. They’ll try to dock a certain portion of the aid and say that they will restore that aid if Egypt does certain things. Given the current political environment in Egypt, I’m not sure that that’s going to work. It could very well backfire on Congress and further heighten the tension between the two countries.
What would be your advice?
It would be better if we could work in partnership with the Egyptians and they welcomed our advice on what to do, but clearly that’s not the case. If they don’t want our assistance we should honor that, and over time that might reduce the tension between the two countries.
I’m not saying that we should not have any interest in what transpires in Egypt. It’s too important and too big a country, but the natural kind of political processes that are taking place in Egypt now don’t lend itself to the same kind of strategic relationship that we had with Egypt over the course of the past thirty years. I don’t think that that’s something that Egyptians want, and we would be well to think about how to change the relationship. The key to actually having a better relationship with the Egyptians over time is to wind down the aid program.