Egypt-US relations: From trouble to engagement? (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

Since late president Anwar Al-Sadat shifted Egyptian-US relations from tension to cooperation and partnership, relations remained stable, even after the departure of Al-Sadat and regardless of some clouds on the horizon from time to time. The US regarded Egypt as a force of stability in the region, providing services to American national security interests within the framework of a strategic partnership.

But the transformational events that Egypt witnessed during the 25 January 2011 Revolution and removal of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was a symbol of 30 years of cooperation between Egypt and United States, opened a new stage in bilateral relations and led to two new chapters. At first, the US administration was reluctant to support the revolution and its demand that Mubarak step down. In the process, the United States tried to influence events through direct contact with the ruling military council, where Washington’s main goal was to guarantee that the new regime would commit itself to the peace treaty with Israel and military and security cooperation with the United States demands that the military council guaranteed.

During the transitional period the United States was watching the domestic interaction between effective political forces. It seems that it concluded that the Muslim Brotherhood movement was the most organised and influential of these. Consequently, if it came to power the US could rely on it, as it represented moderate Islam and would contain extremist political Islam a vision the Brotherhood, when they came to power, underlined when they succeeded in reaching a truce between Hamas and Israel.

As for the second chapter, it started with the 30 June Revolution, particularly after the armed forces intervened 3 July, removing the Brotherhood regime and its president. Dark clouds set in when Egyptian security forces ended the pro-Morsi Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in. President Barack Obama said in astatement: “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.” Obama also announced that the US was cancelling its biannual joint military exercise, Operation Bright Star.

Obama followed this statement on 9 October 2013 by suspending delivery of F16 fighter jets, M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters. Their delivery, the US said, was contingent on “credible progress towards an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections”. However, the new regime in Egypt was moving by itself and acquiring popular support, adopting a roadmap, drafting a new constitution and promising presidential and parliamentary elections. This seems to encourage the US administration to reconsider its attitude towards post-30 June Revolution reality.

On 23 April 2014, the US secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel,toldEgypt’s Minister of Defence, Sidki Sobhi, that US Secretary of State John Kerry would certify to Congress that Egypt was sustaining its strategic relationship with the United States and meeting its obligations under 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Hagel, however, added that the US was unable to “certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition”.

On 28 April 2014, the US State Department issued astatementexpressing concern over Egypt’s mass death sentences.

In this phase in the development in the Egyptian-American relations, we see positive signals from the US towards Egypt go hand-in-hand with negative remarks on human rights and freedoms in the country.

Following the election of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the White Houseissued a statement welcoming the opportunity to advance the Egyptian-American strategic partnership, but also expressed concern on the restricted political environment wherein the elections were conducted. In the same statement, the White House expressed concern over a lack of political freedom in Egypt and said it hoped Al-Sisi would move reform forward towards sustainable democracy.

Following his inauguration, 10 June 2014, Obama called Al-Sisi to congratulate him on his recent election win and reaffirmed US commitment to a strong US-Egypt relationship.

This positive signal was followed by Secretary of State Kerry, on 29 August 2014, repeatingthat the US intended to send Egypt the Apache helicopters that had been held back.

During President Al-Sisi attendance at the UN General Assembly in New York, 25 September 2014, he met Obama. Reports on this meeting differed. In one version, Obama expressed concern on political repression in Egypt. In the other, the US deputy national security advisor said the meeting was “productive”. But Egypt’s presidential spokesman said that President Al-Sisi explained to President Obama the real situation in the country since the 30 June Revolution.

In November 2014,the US Congress discussed the prospect of loosening restrictions on military funding to Egypt. That was followed, 9-11 November 2014, by the US State Department sending a delegation from the US Chamber of Commerce to visit Egypt, including more than 150 US executives representing over 60 companies.

But the positive development on 13 December 2014 was theFY15 Appropriations Billpassed by the US Congress that included $1.45 billion in aid to Egypt.

These positive signals were supported in December 2014when the US Apache helicopters were delivered to Egypt.

On February 2015,during FY16 State Department budget hearings with Kerry, Congressraised no objectionsto resuming Egypt’s $1.3 billion aid package.

On 31 March 2015,the White Houseannouncedit was releasing military aid to Egypt, citing national security concerns. Obama called Al-Sisi to inform him that the executive hold had been lifted on 12 F-16 fighter jets, 20 missiles and up to 125 tank kits. On the other hand, on 12 May 2015,the US State Departmentsent a document to Congress stating it cannot certify Egypt’s democratic progress, as required. Nonetheless, the document stated that Egypt had implemented parts of its democracy roadmap. The document also stated that a series of executive initiatives and judicial actions severely restricted freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and the press.

In the same spirit, on 16 June 2015, Secretary of State Kerry said that the US was not comfortable with the death sentence passed against Mohamed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood figures, along with long prison sentences passed against peaceful activists.

These critical remarks did not hinder the US delivering naval missiles in support of Egypt’s security.Two Fast Missile Craft arrived in Alexandria and will be integrated into the Egyptian naval fleet in the coming weeks.This delivery doubles Egypt’s total fleet of Fast Missile Craft from two to four.

The United States explained the delivery of naval missile craft as protecting vital waterways such as the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The Fast Missile Craft is designed to counter Egypt’s current surface maritime threats and guarantee freedom of navigation. They will also help protect civilian and commercial vessels entering Egypt’s territorial waters through coastal patrol surveillance and maritime searches.

On 25 June 2015, Secretary of State Kerry submitted the 39th Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report on Egypt criticised excessive use of force by security forces, including unlawful killings, and the suppression of civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press. The report also flagged the use of mass trials.

These critical remarks were followed by an official announcement that the two countries agreed to start a round of strategic dialogue on 27-29 of July 2015. This step indicates that regardless of the differences on some issues, they need a consistent dialogue to manage their relations in a constructive way.

What does this review of US-Egypt relations, particularly following the 30 June Revolution, indicate regarding the prospects for relations between the two countries?

In my view, a number of lessons should be learned if the two countries particularly the US are interested in mature, stable and mutual cooperation.

1. In the last analysis, regardless of the ups and downs Egyptian-American relations might face, the two countries recognise that they need each other: the US needs Egypt as a force of stability in the region, serving vital US interests, including the Suez Canal, Egyptian-US security cooperation, use of Egyptian air space for US flights, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and most importantly, combatting terrorism and radical forces in the region. Egypt recognises that the US is, after all, a major power with a world and regional role, and it needs US investment and technology.

2. The experience proved that using aid to influence the political process in Egypt does not work.

3. The experience of the last two years strongly indicates that human rights and freedoms issues will remain a source of trouble in Egyptian-American relations. The US needs to deal with this issue in a broad context, taking into consideration the security threats Egypt is facing, which try to undermine its stability and state institutions. On the other hand, Egypt needs to find the right formula that balances the need to protect its security and internal stability with observation of human rights and individual freedoms.

As indicated, these lessons should be part of the agenda of the expected strategic dialogue between Egypt and the US. For this dialogue to be more effective it should not only be continued on an official level, but must be expanded to include civil society organisations, parliamentarians, scholars, intellectuals, media and businessmen.

The writer is executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.