Navigating U.S.-Egyptian Relations in the Post-Mubarak Era: Strategies for Preserving American Interests – By Micah Peckarsky

Despite the deterioration of U.S.-Egyptian relations following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the U.S. maintains significant strategic interests in Egypt that necessitate the continuation of a major partnership, including the preservation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, military collaboration, access through the Suez Canal, among others. Within this framework, this analysis will provide short and long-term recommendations for U.S. policy, describing how the U.S. should navigate its relationship with Egypt.

 

Micah Peckarsky, Fletcher MALD 2013, is a second-year master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, concentrating in International Security Studies and Southwest Asia & Islamic Civilization. Prior to Fletcher, Micah worked as an analyst for Helios Global, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based government contractor, on international security issues and political trends, focusing on the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and Middle East Studies from McGill University in Montreal.


INTRODUCTION

The wave of political unrest that began in Tunisia in December 2010 spread across the Arab world, reaching Egypt in late January 2011. Mass demonstrations broke out in Egypt on January 25, leading to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. Mubarak’s fall from power was facilitated by significant pressure from the Egyptian military, the most powerful institution in the country, which refused government orders to violently suppress protesters. Since Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt has experienced a turbulent and often violent transition, including the purging and prosecution of top government officials (including Mubarak and his two sons), the dissolution and reelection of the Egyptian parliament, a contentious 16-month phase of military rule, the controversial rewriting of the Egyptian constitution, and the rise of Islamist political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood via its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), with the election of FJP chairman Mohamed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency in June 2012.[1]

Since these massive political changes in Egypt began, U.S-Egyptian relations have sharply deteriorated. This analysis identifies friction points that have emerged since the 2011 Egyptian revolution. These tension points include: the safety and security of U.S. citizens, government personnel, and affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt; insecurity in the Sinai Peninsula and deteriorating Israeli-Egyptian relations; the rise of Islamist political parties; and the overt politicization of the Egyptian military.[2] Within this unstable context and as many policymakers, academics, analysts, and observers have argued, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship will likely be plagued by these hostilities moving forward.[3]

Despite these difficulties, the U.S. maintains significant strategic interests in Egypt that necessitate the continuation of a major partnership, including the preservation of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty (based on the 1978 Camp David Accords), military collaboration, access through the Suez Canal, counterterrorism cooperation, and influence in the Arab world’s most populous state, among others. Within this framework, this analysis will provide short and long-term recommendations for U.S. policy, describing how the U.S. should navigate its relationship with Egypt. Specifically, the U.S. should not adopt a policy of heavily conditioning its aid to Egypt, as such a strategy will likely be unsuccessful and could actually further erode the alliance. The U.S. should continue to build relationships with a variety of Egyptian political players including the Muslim Brotherhood, while persuading the Israeli government to do the same. The U.S. should also bolster its relations with the Egyptian military. Finally, the U.S. government should abstain from directly implementing or financing democracy-promoting programs in Egypt, at least in the short-term. Amid the volatility and uncertainty of the post-Mubarak period and a new dynamic for U.S. policy throughout the region, the U.S. must adopt a carefully constructed strategy that relies on a diverse set of institutional partners in Egypt in order to maintain its core strategic interests while also supporting Egypt’s political transition.

FRICTION POINTS IN U.S.-EGYPTIAN RELATIONS

This section outlines four key areas of contention that have emerged since late January 2011 that have served to significantly damage U.S.-Egyptian ties.

Safety & Security of U.S. Citizens & Personnel in Egypt

Amid the instability of post-revolutionary Egypt, the basic safety and security of U.S. citizens, U.S. government personnel and installations, and U.S.-affiliated NGOs have been threatened on numerous occasions. Such incidents have not only compromised the basic physical protection of Americans, but have also led to high-level political disputes between the U.S. and Egyptian governments, serving to challenge the future of bilateral relations.

A high-profile Egyptian criminal case against four U.S. funded NGOs was a major source of contention between Egypt and the U.S. In late December 2011, Egyptian police raided the offices of four U.S.-based NGOs operating in Egypt: the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).[4] In addition to the office raids of these democracy-promoting organizations that maintain close ties to U.S. Congressional leadership and receive extensive U.S. government funding (notably NDI and IRI), 19 U.S. citizens and numerous other foreign nationals working for these groups were charged with operating in the country without proper licensing and using foreign funding without Egyptian government permission. Egyptian officials such as Fayza Abul Naga—a Mubarak-era minister who served as the driving force behind the investigation—went further by attacking the NGOs and their personnel, and by extension their U.S. financial backers, on political grounds. Naga accused the NGOs and their financial sponsors of sowing chaos in Egypt, interfering in its domestic political affairs, instigating violence, collaborating with spies, and steering the revolution in a direction that favored U.S. and Israeli interests.[5]

U.S. officials threatened to cancel the $1.55 billion aid package that Egypt receives annually from the U.S. if the charges were not dropped and the personnel released. The crisis was eventually resolved in early March 2012 as the NGOs reached a financial settlement with Egyptian authorities, allowing six U.S. citizens who were under a travel ban to leave the country.[6] However, the incident sunk U.S.-Egyptian relations to a new low and challenged the notion that the U.S. government and affiliated organizations should have a role in assisting Egypt’s process of political transition and democratization.

The high-profile arrests of several U.S. citizens in Egypt also raised concerns regarding the safety of Americans in the country. In June 2011, Egyptian security personnel arrested dual U.S.-Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel on charges that he was fomenting unrest in the country and spying on behalf of Israel’s national intelligence agency, the Mossad. Grapel was held until late October 2011, when the Israeli government agreed to release 25 Egyptian prisoners in return for his discharge. Despite apparent acknowledgement by Egyptian authorities that Grapel was not involved in espionage activities, the Israeli government, with the help of U.S. mediation, was forced to pay a price for his freedom—the release of Egyptian prisoners—raising concerns among both U.S. and Israeli officials that post-revolutionary relations with Egypt would be fraught with such difficulties and uncertainties moving forward.[7] A similar episode occurred in November 2011, when three U.S. citizens studying abroad at the American University in Cairo (AUC) were arrested after being accused of participating in violent protests in the capital, specifically throwing Molotov cocktails at government security forces in Tahrir Square; the students denied the charges. The three were released several days later and immediately returned to the U.S., but the incident further complicated U.S.-Egyptian relations.[8]

An attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012, has contributed to questions about the ability and commitment of Egyptian security forces to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomatic personnel and installations in the country. In September 2012, after the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims was uploaded onto YouTube, protests erupted across the Muslim world and beyond, including at U.S. diplomatic missions. An Egyptian Copt and U.S. resident, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, wrote and produced the video. Top leaders in Egypt’s newly formed Salafist political party, known as Hizb al-Noor, reportedly called on Egyptians to assemble outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and protest the film. In Cairo, protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy, tore down the U.S. flag, and replaced it with a black flag featuring the shahada (an Islamic declaration of faith that Islamist and Jihadist movements often use). No U.S. personnel were harmed in the incident, but the Obama administration was angry over both the insufficient Egyptian security force protection and the lack of condemnation by Egyptian officials regarding the attack.[9]

Insecurity in the Sinai Peninsula and Declining Israel-Egyptian Relations

The stability of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Israeli-Egyptian relations have significantly decayed since the fall of the Mubarak regime. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979, which created diplomatic relations and security cooperation between the two former adversaries, has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for more than three decades. Further, it is a key component, if not requirement, of the $1.55 billion annual aid package that Washington gives to Cairo. Mubarak’s ouster has led to both weakened ties between the Jewish state and Egypt, and rising insecurity in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.[10]

In the diplomatic realm, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is now an important topic of policy debate in Egypt. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s relations with Israel were tightly controlled and largely disconnected from Egyptian public opinion. However, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and increased popular political participation in the post-revolutionary period has invigorated a public discussion over Egypt’s alliance with Israel. Though the treaty itself is likely to be maintained in the short-term, the pro-Palestinian position taken by the Egyptian government during the November 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict was notably different in comparison to Mubarak’s support for Israel during the December 2008-January 2009 Israel-Hamas war. This shift demonstrates the heightened role of Egyptian public opinion in shaping Cairo’s position on regional issues, and presents new constraints in Washington’s pursuit of its interests.[11]

On the economic front, Israeli-Egyptian relations have markedly declined. Natural gas pipelines from Sinai, bound for Israel and Jordan, have been attacked over a dozen times in the past two years.[12] In April 2012, the state-owned Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company terminated the contract to export Egyptian natural gas to Israel after lawsuits and criminal investigations in Egypt over accusations that Mubarak-era officials sold gas to Israel at below market value prices. This ended the most significant component of the Israeli-Egyptian economic relationship, threatening the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a major U.S. interest.[13]

Rising militancy in Sinai is also of significant concern to the U.S., particularly regarding the political implications of such instability and its potential to further degrade both U.S.-Egyptian and Israeli-Egyptian relations.[14] On August 18, 2011, Palestinian militants entered southern Israel from Sinai and killed eight Israelis on a desert road north of Eilat, prompting an Israeli military operation to track down the fighters fleeing back into Egypt. The incident resulted in the deaths of five Egyptian security personnel and sparked a massive diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Israel.[15] Popular protests soon broke out in Cairo, and on September 9, 2011, rioters laid siege to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, breaking into the compound. Egyptian commandos rescued six Israeli personnel after U.S. diplomatic pressure from Obama. Israel’s embassy in Egypt was subsequently closed and all but one staff member were transported out of the country.[16] Like the September 2012 attack on the US. Embassy in Cairo, the event further threatened both Israeli-Egyptian and U.S.-Egyptian relations, calling into question whether the Egyptian government and security forces are committed and able to protect Western and allied interests in the country amid rising instability and violence.

Since these events, several other major episodes of violence in Sinai have led to U.S. concerns that the region is developing into a safe haven for armed extremist and organized criminal organizations, including those with transnational objectives.[17] These incidents include the August 2012 attack on an Egyptian military base along the Israeli-Egyptian border; the September 2012 attack on the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) international peacekeeping force in Sinai (staffed by U.S. soldiers and military personnel from other countries); and a general rise in trafficking and organized crime in the Peninsula.[18]

Electoral Success of Islamist Political Parties

The rise of Islamist political parties in Egypt has been a factor in the weakened U.S.-Egyptian relations following the 2011 revolution. Many U.S. government officials, politicians, and observers have expressed alarm at these political developments, citing the Muslim Brotherhood’s violent offshoots throughout the region, such as Palestinian Hamas and the group’s Syrian branch, as blueprints of future political trends in Egypt. Such concerns include that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the more conservative Salafi  political party, Hizb al-Noor, will pursue a political strategy of ‘one vote, one time,’ essentially participating in the electoral system in order to obtain power and then consolidate control by abolishing democratic institutions and processes. Other apprehensions include that an Egyptian government dominated by FJP and its Islamist allies could abrogate the peace treaty with Israel; significantly curtail or even cancel security cooperation with the U.S.; fuse Islamic law and practices into the country’s legal code; and restrict the rights of both women and religious minorities, Coptic Christians in particular.[19] Critics have also charged Hizb al-Noor with holding an even more conservative stance with regards to social issues, such as the consumption of alcohol, women’s dress, and the contents of popular culture.[20]

Long banned as a political party under the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood functioned as the primary opposition group to the National Democratic Party (NDP, formerly led by Mubarak), with its members serving as independents in the Egyptian parliament. After Mubarak’s removal, numerous new political parties formed, but the Muslim Brotherhood was by far the best organized and already had significant popular support based on its political experience and social service networks. The Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP won over 40% of the seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections held from November 2011 through January 2012, capturing 217 of 498 seats in Egypt’s lower legislative body, the People’s Assembly. Mohamed Morsi, FJP’s chairman, was elected to the Egyptian presidency in June 2012, signaling the group’s rise to power.[21] Hizb al-Noor won the next largest share of seats at over 20% (111/498).[22]

Morsi’s controversial efforts to push through a new Egyptian constitution in December 2012 have raised alarm in Washington and other Western capitals about the potentially illiberal governing style of Morsi and FJP. During the contentious process of passing a new constitution, Morsi issued a decree giving himself sweeping powers immune from judicial review despite facing significant political opposition, popular protests that turned violent, and voter turnout to approve the new constitution at just over 30%.[23] While the Obama administration and Morsi have developed an effective working relationship, including forging a ceasefire to end the November 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict by utilizing the long-standing and deep ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, serious questions remain in Washington over the Muslim Brotherhood’s objectives and strategy of governance.[24] Irrespective of the accuracy of such apprehensions, the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt has surely contributed to the cooling of U.S-Egyptian ties since Mubarak’s fall. At the very least, Mubarak’s deposing and the rise of the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood assures that Egyptian public opinion, rather than solely the position of a pro-Western autocrat, will make Washington’s pursuit of its objectives more difficult.[25]

The Overt Politicization of the Egyptian Military

The Egyptian military’s governance of the country during a 16-month period from February 2011 through June 2012 further agitated the relationship between Washington and Cairo. While the Obama administration was supportive of the military’s role in leading Egypt’s political transition, friction between the U.S. and Egypt grew over the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body of senior Egyptian military officers that governed the country. The Egyptian military’s refusal to suppress protesters during the revolution and its eventual overthrowing of Mubarak garnered the organization significant support among the Egyptian populace. This said, the SCAF received substantial criticism both within Egypt and abroad for its control of the political transition period; slow pace of reform; violent crackdowns; and failure to reverse economic decline.[26] Many observers also condemned the SCAF’s perceived efforts to shape Egypt’s political system so as to protect the military’s entrenched privileged position—especially in the economic sphere[27]—drawing comparisons to the strong militaries in Pakistan and Turkey.[28] Concerns about the military’s power continued with the passing of the new Egyptian constitution in December 2012 that explicitly guarantees the military’s authority and lack of civilian oversight.[29]

The SCAF’s actions challenged U.S. efforts to encourage democratization, which became apparent with the NGO crisis. In this context, the SCAF used strong anti-American rhetoric in order to bolster its own domestic image as a defender of the country’s stability and sovereignty against attempts at foreign interference. Some SCAF members branded pro-democracy activists as foreign spies and infiltrators and have been critical of U.S. support for the protest movement. Exemplifying this dynamic, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, appointed in June 2011,[30] was depicted in an Egyptian state-produced magazine in July 2011, entitled “Ambassador From Hell Is Setting Tahrir on Fire,” featuring an image of Patterson using a bundle of burning U.S. dollars to ignite sticks of dynamite wrapped in a U.S. flag planted in Tahrir Square.[31]

The SCAF’s relinquishment of power to a civilian government in June 2012 cooled U.S.-Egyptian hostilities. However, tensions between the military body and the U.S. have continued as political instability in Egypt persists amid concerns that the military could re-intervene in order to manage the country’s political future.[32] As discussed in subsequent sections in this analysis, the U.S. favors a strong Egyptian military in support of U.S. strategic interests, but is concerned about the institution’s political interference.

CORE U.S. INTERESTS IN EGYPT

Despite these times of great uncertainty, the U.S. still has important strategic interests in Egypt that encourage the persistence of a wide-ranging relationship, including the maintenance of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, military cooperation, safe passage through the Suez Canal, and counterterrorism collaboration, among other areas. Following the 1973 October/Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to openly soften his country’s stance toward Israel, traveling to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset in 1977, signing the Camp David peace accords in 1978, and agreeing to a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel in 1979. This enabled Egypt’s reacquisition of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 and moved the country away from the Soviet axis, firmly into the pro-American camp. The 1979 peace treaty remains intact, removing Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict and facilitating a U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship. Within this context, Egypt has served as a reliable interlocutor in helping to advance U.S.-led peace initiatives aimed at solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as the wider Arab-Israeli dispute.[33]

Beyond the Arab-Israeli arena, Egypt grants U.S. vessels access through the Suez Canal, enabling the free flow of commercial goods, including energy resources and military supplies. Use of the Suez facilitates the U.S. projecting its influence in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and South Asian regions. The U.S. military enjoys over-flight rights over Egypt and has access to bases in the country, including naval facilities in Alexandria and the Cairo West Air Base, key elements of the U.S. ability to transport forces throughout the region and contain Iran. Egypt also hosts Operation Bright Star on its territory, a biennial[34] multilateral military exercise organized by the Egyptian armed forces and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Bright Star is the largest military exercise in the region and provides training opportunities for future multilateral military operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.[35]

Egypt served as a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition that expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, contributing 35,000 troops to the military effort. The Egyptian contingent was the third-largest country force, after the U.S. and UK, and provided important Arab legitimacy for other states, such as Syria and Morocco, to join the alliance.[36] Throughout Operation Desert Storm, Egypt permitted 34,952 over-flights by coalition forces, instrumental to the military campaign.[37]

In the post-9/11 era, Egypt has functioned as a major partner in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. In addition to intelligence sharing, Egypt’s experience in dealing with radical Sunni Islamist militant organizations has been invaluable to U.S. operations. Egyptian groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Group (Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, EIG) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Al-Jihad al-Islami al-Masri, EIJ) waged a violent campaign in Egypt in the 1990s, which involved current al-Qaeda (AQ) leader and Egyptian national Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a part of the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship, the U.S. gives Egypt a large annual aid package of $1.55 billion, over 80% of which ($1.3 billion) is dispensed to the Egyptian military.[38]

As a result of both the security focus of U.S. interests in Egypt and the Egyptian armed forces as the main recipient of American aid, U.S.-Egyptian relations since the late 1970s have been overwhelmingly military-centric. The nature of this relationship partly encourages the persistence of U.S.-Egyptian ties despite the country’s political instability and rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it also means that the U.S. sorely lacks the institutional partners needed to influence domestic debates on key political and social issues, such as democratization and economic development.

FORMULATING AMERICAN STRATEGY

The U.S. must adopt a resourceful and multi-faceted strategy going forward given the numerous threats to its strategic alliance with Egypt. Specifically, the U.S. should avoid heavily conditioning its aid package to Egypt, as such a policy is likely to be ineffective and may even exacerbate already damaged relations. The U.S. should engage a diverse range of Egyptian political actors, including but not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood, and encourage the Israeli government to do the same. The U.S. should also reinforce ties with the Egyptian military. Finally, the U.S. government should refrain from directly carrying out or funding democracy-building initiatives in Egypt, at least in the short-term. While U.S. policymakers and officials will be unable to avoid all potential friction points, they should develop new and reinforce existing institutional ties around core American interests and seek to minimize possible flair ups.

Avoiding the Conditionality of Aid

Many U.S. politicians and observers have suggested that U.S. aid to Egypt should be conditioned on the fulfillment of key benchmarks. These benchmarks include not only the maintenance of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but also improved security in the Sinai through military cooperation with Israel; the safety and security of U.S. citizens, personnel, and installations; significant progress toward democratization; respect for all political actors, non-violent protesters, and minority groups in the country; and judicial and security-sector reform, among others. If such measures are not met, proponents of this strategy argue that U.S. assistance to Egypt should be frozen, drastically reduced, or even cancelled.[39]

In late 2011, new U.S. Congressional regulations took affect that require U.S. military assistance to be conditioned on the Egyptian government’s protection of basic freedoms, progress in the country’s democratic transition, and upholding the Camp David peace accords. The closure of the NGO crisis in early March and the signing of a waiver by Hillary Clinton resumed U.S. military aid after a 6-month hiatus (October 2011-March 2012); the waiver signed by Clinton sidestepped the first two conditions based on U.S. national security interests, but certified Egypt’s adherence to the peace treaty with Israel.[40]

Within the context of fragile U.S.-Egyptian relations and Egyptian political instability, the U.S. government should not adopt a strategy of aid conditionality that includes a laundry list of requirements outside upholding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and support of U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts. Donors imposing requirements on their recipients in order to dole out aid seems logical, and such an approach is often used in the financial and economic sectors. However, in the history of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, the conditionality of assistance has not been effective in achieving many U.S. objectives, and has in fact often aggravated bilateral relations by prompting the Mubarak government to use the issue to publicly criticize U.S. interference in domestic affairs. U.S. foreign aid to Egypt, despite its size, should not be misunderstood as manufacturing the country into an American client state. Instead, the Egyptian government has accepted U.S. support and backed American aims when it has also suited Egyptian national interests.[41]

In this light, Egypt has assisted U.S. initiatives only when the Egyptian government perceived such projects to also align with Cairo’s goals, but has opposed American campaigns when they diverge from Egyptian aims. Egypt has cooperated with Israel to maintain the blockade against Hamas-controlled Gaza since 2007 because the Mubarak regime perceived the Palestinian group’s success as a threat to ignite instability within Egypt and possibly threaten the government. However, Egypt refused to support the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on calculations that backing such an endeavor would damage the Egyptian government’s credibility domestically and in the Arab world. Further, the Mubarak regime strongly resisted U.S. calls for Egypt to undertake political reform and democratization efforts, as the Egyptian government feared that such moves would make it more vulnerable to popular discontent. Mubarak also rejected appeals to release imprisoned opposition leader Ayman Nour, who was arrested in 2005 and released only in 2009, after Bush had left office.[42]

Moreover, many Egyptians view their country’s ongoing support of U.S. economic and military efforts as sufficient justification for continued U.S. assistance. Egypt continues to allow Suez transits, military landings, and over-flights, and protect the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, evidence of its constant backing of U.S. interests. Thus, Egyptians believe that applying further conditions on the U.S. aid package is excessive foreign interference.[43]

Finally, the status of the Egyptian armed forces as the main recipient of U.S. foreign assistance makes a policy of conditionality less effective and relevant. U.S. aid to Egypt since the Camp David peace accords has been overwhelmingly directed toward the Egyptian military. The U.S. has viewed the armed forces as a reliable interlocutor to protect U.S. interests throughout the region, and as such, U.S. support has been given directly to Egypt’s military, and not to the country’s internal security services. Such a distinction on the institutional recipients of U.S. aid was made in the Leahy Law, included in the Foreign Operations Appropriations Acts. In February 2011, the Egyptian military broke with and deposed the civilian government, surely somewhat motivated by a strong desire to secure its own future position, but also demonstrating that the armed forces would not tolerate the use of force by the Mubarak regime to maintain political power, instead siding with the population.[44] In this regard, U.S. aid to the Egyptian military contributed to a positive outcome, the refusal of the armed forces to fire on protesters during the 2011 revolution. However, since over 80% of U.S. aid is given to the Egyptian military, the imposition of wide-ranging conditions to ensure the continuation of such assistance is both illogical and unrealistic. A number of these requirements, such as democratization, are not directly related to the military, especially since the SCAF relinquished political power in late June 2012.

As the Egyptian military led a difficult transition period, U.S. policymakers must not be misled into assuming that large-scale economic and military assistance to Egypt buys the country’s compliance with all U.S. initiatives. Rather, such cooperation is based on Egyptian recognition of its own national interests, and in the post-revolutionary era the U.S. must recognize that such Egyptian acquiescence will be even more difficult as the SCAF and Morsi must incorporate Egyptian public opinion into policy decisions. Thus, the U.S. should establish ‘red lines’ that condition U.S. aid to Egypt, including the peace treaty with Israel and ongoing support of U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts, but cannot realistically extend its benchmarks to incorporate all U.S. objectives.

Engaging Egypt’s Political Actors

As evidenced by the fact that over 80% of U.S. aid is distributed to the Egyptian military, the U.S. sorely lacks institutional ties to the diverse array of political actors active in the post-Mubarak system. The U.S. government has long shunned the Muslim Brotherhood, believing that the organization spawned violent offshoots throughout the region and is overall hostile to U.S. interests.[45]

However, as demonstrated by the electoral success of FJP and the more conservative Hizb al-Noor, as well as the election of Morsi to the Egyptian presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood and a collection of other Islamist parties are political realities in Egypt. This is increasingly the case throughout the region; the U.S. must recognize this development by directly engaging with these actors. In addition to holding regular meetings with a variety of Muslim Brotherhood officials (reflecting the substantial internal diversity of the organization), Hizb al-Noor, and other Islamist movements, the U.S. Department of State should lead the way in building substantive strategic dialogue with these groups. U.S. officials should not assume that the views and objectives of these organizations necessarily conflict with U.S. interests. Instead, they must develop a more nuanced understanding of the internal structures and objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood and others in order to build the foundation for a relationship with the future power brokers in Egyptian politics.[46]

Rather than shunning well-established and popularly legitimate political actors in Egypt, the U.S. must engage their more moderate elements and further integrate them into bilateral discussions. The U.S. has been over-reliant on its relationship with the Egyptian military, which is surely aware of this American weakness, and U.S. strategy and interests in the post-Mubarak period have suffered as a result. Developing serious ties with Egypt’s political actors will weaken the leverage that the SCAF has over the U.S., providing a counterbalance that has political power and popular legitimacy. Now in a position of authority and no longer serving as merely an opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies have serious aspirations to engage in good governance, revive Egypt’s moribund economy, gain international and Western recognition, and garner foreign investment and trade. To this end, cooperation with the U.S. is in the Muslim Brotherhood’s interest in order to achieve political stability and economic recovery.[47]

To be sure, the U.S. has made progress in building a working relationship with Morsi, FJP, and the Muslim Brotherhood,[48] but this process must be ongoing and not limited to the Morsi government. In October 2011, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson stated that she wasn’t comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood and had yet to hold any direct talks with the group.[49] But in November 2012, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt and worked with Morsi to construct a ceasefire to end the November 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict,[50] demonstrating the development of a functional, though imperfect, working relationship between the two governments.[51] Recognizing that the Morsi administration is governing by a narrow majority, the U.S. should also build ties with a diverse range of Egyptian opposition parties and individuals.

As the U.S. expands its engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, it should also facilitate and encourage Israel to do the same. Like the U.S., Israeli interaction with Egypt since the 1979 peace treaty has been almost exclusively with the top echelons of the Mubarak government and the military. Israel has long viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as its enemy that served as the parent organization for Palestinian Hamas. Israel must recognize that the days of Mubarak are gone and that Egyptian public opinion, including its views regarding Israel, is now an essential component of the bilateral relationship. Following the November 2011 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and the evacuation of the Jewish state’s diplomatic personnel, Israel sent a new ambassador to Egypt, Yaakov Amitai. In December 2011, reports surfaced that Israel’s Foreign Ministry gave Amitai permission to open dialogue with both FJP and Hizb al-Noor.[52] Given the ongoing insecurity in the Sinai, the U.S. should push the Morsi administration and the Israeli government to establish direct communication channels in order to manage future crises.[53] The development of ties with Egypt’s Islamist political actors by both the U.S. and Israel is an important component of American strategy in the post-Mubarak era.

Reinforcing Military to Military Relations

Though the political transition period to democratic civilian rule was surely difficult, the U.S. should seek to maintain its strong relationship with the Egyptian military.[54] The most extensive and deeply rooted U.S.-Egyptian ties lie in the relationship between the two states’ armed forces. Over the course of a partnership spanning more than 30 years, the Egyptian military has served as a solid ally, halting conflict and building ties with Israel’s defense establishment, ensuring the free flow of goods through the Suez Canal, contributing to the U.S.-led coalition in Operation Desert Storm, providing logistical support in Egypt for U.S. military operations, hosting multilateral military exercises, and engaging in intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation. The Egyptian military has largely stayed out of the domestic political sphere, intervening in 2011 only when the Mubarak regime attempted to use massive force to maintain political power,[55] and transferred political authority to a civilian government in late June 2012.[56]

The U.S. should continue its institutional relationship and programs with the Egyptian military, which have largely been effective in advancing U.S. interests. Through well-established training programs, thousands of Egyptian military officers have received instruction at U.S. institutions such as the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. The U.S. also conducts training exercises in Egypt and has over 600 military personnel stationed in the country to help coordinate military assistance, monitor Israeli-Egyptian border security, and supervise Israeli and Egyptian adherence to the peace treaty. Such programs have been instrumental in the professionalization of the Egyptian military, as displayed by its refusal to fire on protesters during the 2011 revolution, when top U.S. military officials were able to use their connections to influence this behavior. As the SCAF’s older cadre of leadership begins to retire, continued U.S. support of Egypt’s armed forces is vital in influencing its rising commanders to maintain the military’s competency as an apolitical force that will continue to honor its relinquishment of power to a civilian government in late June 2012 and beyond.[57] Given the Sinai Peninsula’s rising instability and previous joint U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian efforts to combat smuggling in the territory, the U.S. should also work with the Egyptian military and Israel to reestablish Sinai’s security, and address the root causes of this volatility, which would benefit all parties and build mutual trust.[58]

Rethinking U.S. Government Democracy-Building Efforts

The U.S. government should avoid directly implementing or financing democracy-building operations in Egypt, at least in the short-term. The NGO crisis brought to the fore the issue of what kind of role, if any, the U.S. government and its sponsored organizations can play in assisting Egypt’s democratization. While proponents of these NGOs argue that they are assisting in the country’s political party development, civic education, domestic election monitoring, and other activities essential to democratic growth, such operations were formerly done by U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in European countries in the 1950s.[59] Though the democracy-building efforts of these U.S. NGOs may be genuine, how they are perceived in volatile post-revolutionary environments like Egypt, where sensitivities to foreign meddling are high, must be considered. In this sense, overt U.S. government involvement with pro-democracy forces through the funding of U.S. NGO operations—no matter how benign those activities—can have a massively destabilizing impact. As seen with the NGO crisis, the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood felt pressured to respect Naga’s investigation based on domestic political considerations, ultimately leading to the expulsion of the U.S. workers.[60] What seemed like a trivial issue—the lack of proper licensing that had long been tolerated by the Mubarak government with tacit approval—served to enflame already existing tensions and possibly threaten the very existence of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.[61]

This is not to say that such democracy-building initiatives should be fully abandoned in the post-Mubarak Egypt. Moving forward amidst Egypt’s chaotic political transition period, however, the U.S. government should not directly engage in or finance these activities. As difficult as it may be, the U.S. government should seriously rethink its financial support of democracy-strengthening NGO projects in Egypt, as such monetary assistance will likely be perceived by many Egyptians as U.S. government efforts to steer Egypt’s political future in support of American objectives. U.S. NGOs can certainly play a supporting role, but they should seek funding sources outside of the U.S. government in order to be viewed as independent actors. NGOs such as NDI and IRI should also engage in immediate efforts to legalize the presence and work of their organizations, and assist Egyptian-led operations, rather than direct their own initiatives. While this strategy may mean a difficult and drawn out process for the development of the organizational capacities of Egyptian political parties and civil society groups, it will allow emerging Egyptian political actors and activists to progress more autonomously, better protect the safety of U.S. citizens, and facilitate the pursuit of U.S. strategic interests.[62]

CONCLUSION

As the numerous hostilities characterizing the U.S.-Egyptian relationship in the post-revolutionary period have demonstrated, U.S. dealings with Mubarak’s successors will be fraught with challenging dilemmas. No longer a reliable autocratic ally, the new Egypt includes a politically active military, a governing Muslim Brotherhood, an ongoing protest movement, and an assertive public that will all influence future relations with the U.S. In this confusing and evolving environment, U.S. policymakers are wise to adopt a multi-faceted strategy to protect core American interests and assist Egypt’s democratic transition. The U.S. must neither rely on a single institutional partner in Egypt’s diverse arena nor adopt a simply reactive approach, but rather develop relationships with the country’s emerging actors across the political spectrum, cement ties with its long-standing military allies, and cultivate a comprehensive and well-informed strategy that takes into account both short and long-term policy implications.

The views and opinions expressed in articles are strictly the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of Al Nakhlah, its Advisory and Editorial Boards, or the Program for Southwest Asia


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[53] Trager, “Obama’s Big Egypt Test: Sinai.”

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[60] Josh Rogin, “State Department on Egypt: SCAF May Not be Behind NGO Raids,” Foreign Policy, February 8, 2012,http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/08/state_dept_on_egypt_don_t_blame_the_scaf (accessed February 28, 2013); Steve Weissman and Frank Browning, “The ‘NGOs’ that Spooked Egypt,” Salon, April 7, 2012,<http://www.salon.com/2012/04/07/the_ngos_that_spooked_egypt/&gt; (accessed February 28, 2013).

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