11 months have passed since the June 2013 uprisings, and one of the most important geo-political partnerships in the Middle East is still at a crossroads.
Egypt and the United States have kept close political and military ties for nearly four decades. The ordinary hiccups and obstacles along the way notwithstanding, this partnership has endured and proved to be “The cornerstone of the American foreign policy in the Mid-East”, as former US president George W. Bush described it back in 2002.
The crossroads comes at a particularly significant and rather sensitive time. In just over a month, Egypt will witness its second presidential elections in the space of two years, nearly a year after the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi. The crossroads also represents the present and future predicament of this vital relationship. The US was not entirely satisfied with the course of action that took place in Egypt post- June 2013. This was clearly evident in their aid cuts and public statements. But will that hinder the two states from reconciliation? The world is currently on its toes, awaiting the results of the upcoming presidential elections, and the same can also be said of the American administration.
However, the presidential election results alone cannot be the sole guarantor of what is to come between the two countries. Several variables are also at play in this equation – historical ones most definitely. American influence in the Middle East through Egypt was achieved through a long process and it certainly cannot be disentangled in a fortnight. Yet what the previous year’s incidents have shown us is that power politics are still at large. The phase that both states are presently in cannot be better described than “political foreplay”.
In October 2013, the US Congress decided to withhold its military aid to Egypt. While not all of the aid was halted, a noteworthy amount was cut. Such a move came as the result of the seemingly unproductive process that the interim government undertook after July 3rd, namely the marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood from political life, the heavy security operations that ensued at the dispersals of the Raba’a and Nahda squares, and as US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “credible progress” has to be sought for the resumption of aid.
An abundant aid package has been provided since late president Anwar Al-Sadat’s time. A package of aid that also entailed certain responsibilities to be fulfilled by the Egyptian government – especially when Mubarak was in power. Economic and Financial consulting firm “Dcode” highlighted that American aid to Egypt decreased from $2.3 billion in 1991 to $1.55 billion in 2013. Such a cut was not gradual over the years; rather it was an abrupt one, mainly because the US relied heavily on the Mubarak regime to sustain an open relationship with Israel and keep the Egyptian population in check. The importance of the Egyptian regime to the US grew after 2001, particularly throughout the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when American ships passed through the Suez Canal en route to the Gulf.
It is also natural for a shift in policies to occur. This happened in January and February 2011, when the US government decided to side with the people on the streets and abandon their loyal ally, a pragmatic move at best and certainly, for a short period, a smart tactic. This brings us to another important aspect of this relationship. Even if the Americans decided to adopt a more friendly approach in the future, what guarantees that it will endure?
Russia might prove to be a speed bump along the way for the Egypt-US reconciliation process. Needless to say, the present situation is not the same as in the time of the Cold War, but Russia demonstrated that it can be a key player in the Middle East. Key matters such as the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear file showcase that Russia is still capable of outweighing the US in sensitive areas. That does not necessarily mean that it will replace the US as Egypt’s patron, as political researcher Nael Shama put it.
Yet Russia has voiced its support for the Egyptian regime and people. In addition, Russian president Vladimir Putin implicitly voiced support for Al-Sisi’s presidential bid. Giving Al-Sisi’s grand stature in the hearts of many Egyptians, he is widely expected to become the next head of state.
Additionally, Shama notes that the Americans would reconsider their stance towards the new regime depending on the election process and whether it is conducted through democratically supervised methods. Shama expects that issues such as human rights and integrating the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process would definitely be put as indicators to restarting the partnership in the future.
American-Egyptian relations were built on a basic and strong foundation, but they are not unshakeable. What the partnership has witnessed in the past turbulent year has put it to the test. Whether or not both countries will manage to succeed in overcoming the obstacles, it is still premature to define it as a failing partnership. The aid subject is not all there is in such a strategic relationship either. Publicly supporting the Egyptian regime is imperative for the continuation of any further rapprochement.
This Op-ed was originally published in the Middle East Media Center for Studies website http://www.memcs.com. It is written by Yahia Gweifel.