Egypt and the US: The end of a beautiful friendship?

Since Hosni Mubarak’s forcible ouster, relations between the US and Egypt have taken a downturn, though DC is not ready to acknowledge it.

Mubarak laying down in court 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mubarak laying down in court 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A year ago, Egypt was America’s staunchest ally in the Arab world and the bulwark of its policy against the axis of evil led by Tehran. The strong strategic bond between the two countries was upheld by the millions of dollars in American aid allocated to Egypt following the peace treaty with Israel: In 2010, $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million for civilian purposes. Egyptian army officers studied and trained in the United States and every other year, the two armies held joint military exercises code-named “Bright Star.”
Over the years, a number of other countries – from the Middle East and from Europe – were invited to take part in these exercises, which reinforced Egypt’s dominant role in the region.
But now, both the peace with Israel and the strategic alliance with America are under attack. It started immediately after the revolution. Nabil Elaraby, the new foreign minister (soon to be elected head of the Arab League) said that “revolutionary Egypt had no enemies,” adding that he would open a dialogue with Iran and check if there was a need to introduce changes to the peace treaty with Israel.
Then, with the full support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), talks began with Hamas – which is on the list of banned terrorist organizations of both the United States and the European Union. Former Arab League chief and current presidential candidate Amr Moussa and would-be candidate Mohamed ElBaradei both declared that the peace treaty would have to be reviewed to see if it complied with the needs of Egypt.
At the same time, these and other political figures, as well as the heads of the SCAF, repeated that Egypt would abide by its international obligations.
The Muslim Brotherhood – who, with other Islamic parties, carried three quarter of the new parliament – made contradictory statements concerning the treaty and what they will do when they form the new government is anybody’s guess. They will also have to decide what to do regarding Iran, since contacts were stopped as soon as Elaraby understood that Tehran was not changing its policy and was still very much a threat to “revolutionary Egypt.”
Under president Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood, then a banned movement, did have contacts with the mullahs of Iran and gave their blessings to Hamas’s ties with that country.
“What now?” America worries. Will the army relinquish power peacefully, and let the Brotherhood steer Egypt toward an uncertain future? Will there be more violence, as the events of last week showed? One thing is certain: Egypt is no longer to be relied upon. A dialogue of a sort is ongoing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but is going nowhere. “Bright Star” and its joint exercises are on hold amid growing tensions between the former friends and allies. At the same time, relations between Israel and Egypt have gone from cold to glacial, though cooperation on the prevention of terror is still going on after a fashion. Is Egypt, doing its best to broker a deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, still focused on stopping more and more sophisticated weaponry from reaching Gaza? It does not seem so.
According to recent reports, the flow of arms from Sudan and now from Libya is turning into a flood. Terrorist organizations are taking over Sinai and Egyptian authorities appear helpless.
A frustrated America is torn between keeping the alliance alive at all costs and condemning blatant violations of human rights, such as leaving 60 dead and thousands wounded in quashing demonstrations and targeting Copts taking to the streets to protest Muslim harassment and burning of churches. US Secretary of State Clinton did warn the SCAF not to use excessive violence and urged the army to transfer its powers to civilian authority, but to little avail.
Then there was the raid on the offices of 17 NGOs funded by foreign sources in December. Documents were seized and all operations halted. Three of these organizations were directly linked to the United States: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. All were devoted to monitoring human rights and working toward democracy. All appeared to be in violation of the law because they were not registered as organizations receiving funds from foreign sources and might be prosecuted at the end of the ongoing investigation. No amount of entreaties from the State Department swayed Egyptian authorities, nor did an appeal to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi by 11 senators. The senators then turned to the foreign relations and finance committees, and asked them to apply pressure to stop the investigation and to ensure that the NGOs could resume their activities by registering them. They stressed that failure to do so, and measures taken against the members of these NGOs would be a matter of grave concern, and might lead to a suspension of American aid. Similar protests were heard from Congress.
There was no answer from Cairo. This led to an unprecedented step by the American lobbyists who had been representing the Egyptian defense establishment in Washington: They denounced the lucrative $1m. yearly contract signed in 2007 and declared they would no longer work for Egypt. It did not help either.
The situation got worse. All NGOs workers, including six Americans, were prevented from leaving the country. The six Americans, fearing arrest, then took refuge in their embassy to wait on developments.
One of them is the son of US Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood. Sen.
John McCain, who heads the International Republican Institute, called on Egyptian authorities to stop harassing the workers and put an end to the “unjustified” investigation.
At the beginning of last week, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta personally called Tantawi and asked him to let the Americans leave the country. No results so far.
There is an effort on both sides to minimize the issue. Mahmoud Eisa, the Egyptian minister for industry and foreign trade who was recently in the US, said that this was “a purely judicial matter.”
Faiza Abu el-Naga, the minister for planning and international cooperation, declared that Egypt and the US agreed that the alliance between the two was more important that the NGO crisis. Mark Toner, the spokesman for the State Department, affirmed that the political process in Egypt was ongoing, adding that forbidding a number of American citizens from leaving the country was a cause for concern and that Egyptian authorities have to deal with that issue.
However, the crisis is damaging the image of Egypt in America. More importantly, it demonstrates that the SCAF is not afraid of a clash with its closest ally.
Yet Egypt needs American aid, technology and investments; it needs American help in obtaining loans and subventions from international organizations. In a telephone call to Field Marshal Tantawi on January 20, Obama discussed all these issues as well as Egypt’s request of $3.2b.
from the International Monetary Fund.
Obama reiterated his preoccupation with the NGOs problem but got no satisfactory answer.
Though the NGOs are not registered, it is not for want of trying. They submitted the necessary documents under Mubarak’s regime, and received no answer; it was seen as a form of tacit acceptance. Thus, the raid on the offices of these organizations with no warning suggests that the army is not worried about a possible crisis with the United States. Yet it does not make sense, since Egypt needs America more than ever.
However, Egypt is making no effort to appease and insists that the judicial process will be carried out to the end.
Congress, which authorized American aid for 2012, did make it conditional on an orderly transfer of power to civilian authorities, adding that this meant free elections as well as the freedoms of expression, association, religion and due process.
An Egyptian delegation is in Washington to discuss next year’s military assistance.
Apparently a routine meeting, but in the present context, they might get a clear warning.
Obama, who hastened to jettison his former ally and called for Mubarak to “go, go now” – thus precipitating his fall – may have thought that the Egyptians would be grateful to him. He was wrong.
In fact, America’s image has further deteriorated.
The United States is perceived as being on the wrong side. The overwhelming majority that sent an Islamic wave to the parliament shows that Egypt is not ready yet for democracy and looks askance at the great country that is a symbol of democracy. The SCAF has been as dictatorial as Mubarak in running the country, discrimination against the Copts is increasing, and the country’s foreign policy is taking a new orientation – three events that have baffled and dismayed the United States. Now Egypt’s blatant disregard of America’s legitimate concern about its citizens raises the question: Is the country, under the leadership of the Brotherhood, deliberately distancing itself from its former ally?
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.