Strengthening the U.S.-Egyptian Relationship

May 30, 2002



The U.S.-Egyptian relationship is rooted in strategic calculation. It bolsters peace between Egypt and Israel and makes possible broader peace in the region. The U.S.-Egyptian relationship has helped Egypt modernize its military and has added weight to its position as a stabilizing regional force. America's support has also strengthened Egypt's economy. As has been true for the past two decades, a moderate Egypt is the key to peace and stability in the Middle East and a strong U.S.-Egyptian relationship is essential to securing American presence in the region.

The U.S.-Egyptian relationship has served the two sides well. Two decades of military cooperation and training have moderated Egypt's military establishment, the most powerful institution in Egypt, and made it a reliable U.S. partner. During the Gulf War, Egypt's support was central to Arab participation in the war against Iraq; Egypt's willingness to keep open its canal in crisis and allow overflight and refueling cannot be taken for granted. These ties remain central to the U.S. ability to project and protect its strategic interests in the world's most volatile region.

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Washington has lost sight of what the Middle East would look like without a strong U.S.-Egyptian relationship. A nuclear-inclined or -armed Egypt, ambiguous on the issue of terror, uncertain on peace with Israel, and disinclined to negotiate would drastically recast the management of the Middle East.

Since September 11, it has become all too clear that U.S.-Egyptian ties are in trouble. Although the Egyptian government has stood firmly with the United States, the U.S. Congress has grown increasingly critical in its support for Egypt. Congress questions the line that Egypt has taken with Israel, its position on terrorism, issues of human rights, and economic and political reform.

A similar dissatisfaction with the U.S.-Egyptian relationship exists in Egypt. The events of recent months set loose demonstrations unprecedented in recent decades. The Egyptian public's perception of powerlessness is breeding alienation and intensifying anger. It underscores a key challenge to American statecraft- how to begin recreating a partnership that serves both Egyptian and American interests and helps further peace for the region. The United States needs Arab allies, especially in these challenging times; Egypt is our most important partner.

The generation of American statesmen and political leaders who forged the Egyptian-Israeli agreement and was committed to the political relationship between the United States and Egypt in the 1970s has largely passed. As the Mubarak era similarly draws to a close, Washington should work to ensure that the successor regime shares a commitment to the kind of relationship the United States has enjoyed over the past quarter century.

At the same time, both sides must recognize that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship has changed and now reflects new political realities, such as Egypt's struggling economic condition and concerns over governance and human rights. This generation of leaders must set new goals for the relationship and recalibrate the dialogue so that it reaches beyond the institutions of government and engages religious leaders, media, intellectuals, and the business establishment on both sides.

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Foundations of the U.S.-Egypt Relationship


  • Egypt is the most powerful moderate, balancing voice in the Arab world.
  • Its position in the region is critical to peace between Arab states and Israel.
  • Egypt's political clout shapes outlooks and guides agendas in the region.
  • Cairo's diplomatic corps has significant influence in regional and multinational bodies. Egypt plays an important role in the United Nations in shaping international consensus on issues important to peace and stability in the region.
  • Egypt's posture on key issues of importance provides cover for Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
  • Egypt, a vigorous Organization of African Unity actor, has the ability to influence events in Africa.


  • U.S.-Egyptian military ties are a key link in the U.S. relationship. They are a central stabilizing factor in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. More broadly, the U.S.-Egyptian defense relationship sends a signal of domestic moderation and deterrence to the region. The Egyptian military is deeply opposed to Islamic political radicalism.
  • Overflight rights, the sharing of intelligence and military perceptions in the region, transit through the Suez Canal, military supply, etc., demonstrate the important nature of the military relationship, especially during times of war.
  • Egypt hosts Operation Bright Star, the largest military exercise the United States conducts in the world. These maneuvers send a strong signal to the region of the close ties the U.S. shares with Egypt and its ability to quickly deploy American military power during times of crisis.


  • Egypt's intellectual and academic voice is the strongest in the region.
  • Washington needs the full cooperation of Egypt's government, intellectuals, and religious leaders to counter Islamic radicalism.
  • While no single set of voices defines modern Islam, Egypt's intelligentsia, religious hierarchy, and institutions are central in defining Islamic religious and secular perspectives and diminishing the influence of radical Islamic tendencies. For the past several decades, Egypt has been a battleground between moderate and radical Islamic forces. The role of Egyptian militants in al-Qaeda and other radical movements is considerable.
  • Egypt is the largest exporter of culture in the region, although the Gulf has overtaken Egypt as the hub of modern media in the Middle East.


  • Egypt is the most populous nation in the Arab world and its economy vies with Saudi Arabia in size. Its economy is in trouble and its poor performance is fueling discontent on the street.
  • Egypt hosts significant American investment; the discovery of substantial gas reserves will increase Egypt's role in regional energy markets.

Current Perceptions

Changing Relations

  • Egypt has been cast as an obstructionist force in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the U.S.-led war against terrorism. In fact, Egypt has worked quietly and consistently for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and for an expansion of the Arab world's acceptance of Israel. Frustration, however, is understandable in the United States-the relationship began with the expectation that peace in the region would have been achieved years ago. Egypt has consistently made clear its belief that there must be progress toward Palestinian statehood; where it sees that progress checked, Egypt is outspoken and its criticism has been interpreted in many American circles as obstructionist.
  • Public dialogue does not reflect the close military and government relationships between the two countries. Both the Egyptian and American publics are extremely critical of the relationship and criticism has increased sharply since September 11 and the second Intifada.
  • The United States has unrealistic expectations of the leadership powers of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and of Egypt in the Arab world, in pursuing U.S. interests. There has been a transition in the structure of the Arab and Egyptian political systems. While these systems are essentially top-down structures, they are not command structures.
  • Egypt and Saudi Arabia are an axis of political power in the Middle East; they backstop one another on key political issues. Any U.S. military operation against Iraq would require the understanding, if not the support, of both countries.

U.S. Aid to Egypt

  • One of the pillars of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is the near $2 billion of U.S. economic and military aid given yearly.
  • Many believe that the U.S. investment in Egypt should compel the Egyptian government to accommodate American views on the region, particularly with regard to Egypt's relationship with Israel-or at the very least moderate the harsh rhetoric. Moreover, some in the United States question the benefits of aid to Egypt, pointing to its lagging political and economic reforms and poor human rights record.
  • American assistance has contributed to Egypt's stability and gives the United States considerable influence in key decisions about Egyptian policies. Using military supply or assistance as direct, visible leverage is extremely dangerous, reinforcing the impression on the Egyptian street that its government is subservient to the United States. Such signals weaken the ability of the United States to pursue mutually beneficial initiatives.
  • U.S. aid to Egypt was originally targeted for specific purposes and, in many ways, continues to successfully address significant U.S. political goals: consolidating the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and strengthening U.S.-Egyptian ties. In reality American aid is a two-edged sword that must be viewed judiciously. It reinforces the American voice in Egyptian councils, but it cannot replace a consensus on political and economic objectives.
  • U.S. military aid to Egypt has created a solidly pro-American military establishment, which is the strongest institution in Egypt and the fundamental basis of the regime. Twenty years of military cooperation is producing an Egyptian military leadership comfortable with American approach and doctrine. U.S. military aid helps ensure that Egypt remains associated with the United States, despite criticism from the Egyptian elite. But like all relationships, this one is not immutable. The Soviet Union learned this harsh lesson in the 1970s.
  • U.S. aid to Egypt was never intended to push Egypt to reform according to America's priorities. U.S. aid has not resulted in the anticipated economic growth and political change in Egypt, nor has it secured peace between Israel and the Palestinians and all Arab states. And it cannot. American lawmakers must recognize the value that U.S. aid has brought to the relationship and accept its limitations, as well as its promise-the influence the United States accrues by having a seat at the Egyptian table.

Egypt as Battleground

  • Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11 terrorist attack, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organizational force behind al-Qaeda, were Egyptian.
  • Islamic radicalism has a history deeply rooted in Egypt and the Egyptian government has been fighting radicalism since the time of Anwar Sadat. In the 1990s, Egypt conducted a hard fought campaign to root out Islamic militants after a series of deadly attacks. There is a direct line from the assassins of Sadat to the radicals that gave birth to the Egyptian components of al-Qaeda.
  • The threat of Islamic radicalism to Egypt's stability is real and continuing. Attacks are primarily aimed at overthrowing the current Egyptian regime and replacing it with an Islamic one. In fact, September 11 attacks were also aimed at Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where Islamic militants have been stymied.
  • The inspiration for al-Qaeda's ideology was Egyptian, and Osama bin Laden was advised heavily by Egyptians. Egypt's fundamentalists gave substance to al-Qaeda's tilt toward anti-Israel, anti-U.S., and anti-Arab regime rhetoric and action. Omar Abdel Rahman, "the blind sheikh," was an early and major force in Islamic radical militancy; the first attack on the World Trade Center was his handiwork.
  • September 11 demonstrated to the Egyptian people and government that their own war against terrorism is part of a larger phenomenon that threatens Egypt and the entire world. Egypt's support and full-hearted cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism demonstrates its commitment to fight against terrorism both inside and outside of its borders. The United States needs to preserve and strengthen that commitment.
  • Even though Egypt's government and elites are bitterly opposed to Islamic radicalism, Egyptian intellectuals and state-sponsored media have contributed to the climate of denigration of Israel and the United States and are partially responsible for the intensity of hostility on the Egyptian street. Whatever short-term advantages are gained in public opinion from attacks against Israel and the United States, they are deeply unsettling to Americans and undermine the foundations on which peace must be built. Moreover, such denigration blurs key moral distinctions especially important in the debate over the future of modern Islam, and contributes to the justification of the use of terror.
  • The media reality in the Arab world, including Egypt, is changing. Independent Arab papers and television have created cross-border competition in the media heretofore unknown. Arab governments have effectively lost some of their ability to control the airwaves and print media, and are struggling to cope with the consequences. The Egyptian government never had perfect control of its media; today the degree of official control over the press and press opinion is diminishing.

Egyptian Middle Class

  • There is growing animosity in the secular elite establishment toward the United States focused specifically on U.S. policy toward Israel. This negative dialogue is damaging government relations. Egypt's regime is extremely sensitive to the attitude of its elites.
  • Among the Egyptian middle class, there is respect for the United States, its accomplishments and the role it can play in the Middle East. Regrettably, there is a strong belief that the problems in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship and in American policies in the region are caused by the American-Jewish community and its perceived control over U.S. government institutions and media. This attitude-and the rhetoric that goes with it-distorts perceptions and damages the dialogue. It undercuts Egypt's standing in the United States and must be an issue in any ongoing dialogue-one the United States is frank enough to address.
  • The United States should not expect a tame Egyptian press. It can expect, however, that the media and key intellectual institutions reverse the climate of denigration that has chilled relations. Strong signals of respect and the need for peace must come from the top and are a reasonable objective of U.S. diplomacy. Egypt's intellectuals will not break ranks with perceived orthodoxy and challenge conventional wisdom unless there is a strong signal from the top.

The Troubled Economy

  • The deplorable conditions of the Egyptian economy are fueling discontent. Growth is flat; reform has stopped.
  • U.S. assistance cannot bail Egypt out; rather Egypt must make hard decisions and move decisively toward a market-based economy.
  • But Egypt cannot do so alone. Egypt needs the United States as an economic partner and counselor with the International Monetary Fund and in mobilizing international support for debt rescheduling. President Mubarak needs confidence if he is to undertake politically sensitive but much needed reform.

Updating the U.S.-Egypt Relationship

  • The United States must set new goals and priorities for the U.S-Egyptian relationship that redefine the U.S. strategic view of the relationship within the context of Egypt's role in the Arab world.
  • The dialogue must recreate a sense of partnership in influencing events in the region.
  • The dialogue should be aimed at Egypt's leaders and also its elite and middle class.
  • Disagreement is best kept on official or private channels and out of the media. The dialogue must be candid and broad, addressing issues of immediate concern-the crisis in the region and Iraq. It can seek common ground in questions of importance to American policy outside the Middle East-Africa, for example.
  • The dialogue must broach sensitive questions-the intellectual debate in Islam, the way Egypt's media addresses the role of the American-Jewish community, Israel, and the United States. These consultations must address Egypt's virtually stagnant economic reform program and put on the table discrete steps that Egypt should take to create a properly functioning market economy. The United States should offer its influence with international financial institutions and the business community to match steps that Egypt takes.

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