The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

On the future of Egypt-US relations

Steve Cook has a piece at The Atlantic in which he argues that, Shafiq or Morsi, Egypt-US relations have a poor future. He says:

The American military aid to Egypt has become an annual political fight with Congress over conditionality that doesn't sit well with the officers in addition to the fact that $1.3 billion, which needs to be spent in the United States, doesn't buy all that much these days. Moreover, the remnants of the old regime, of which Shafiq is now the standard bearer, were angry over the way the United States handled the uprising. Hosni Mubarak carried Washington's water in the Middle East for almost 30 years to his political detriment and from where supporters of the old regime sit, the Obama administration unceremoniously dumped a longtime ally. I am told that the felool are over it. I am not convinced, but even if they are, it is hard to believe that President Shafiq will embrace the United States given the way Mubarak was treated. Mind you, that doesn't mean that the Obama administration pursued the wrong policy when it came to the conclusion that the Egyptian president had to go, but that Shafiq and his supporters likely have a different view of that episode and it could affect bilateral relations.

Finally, precisely because Shafiq represents the old order, he needs to demonstrate some space between himself and the policies of the past. Even if he wants to roll back the changes that have occurred since the uprising and has held himself out as the restorer of order, the uprising has fundamentally altered Egypt's political arena in important ways. For all their problems and political limitations, revolutionary groups, liberals, leftists, Salafists and a variety of others have discovered ways to make their voices heard. It's clear that Shafiq understands this as he has softened his position on the uprising considerably since it became evident that he would be in the run-off. Like Morsi, Shafiq needs to appeal to voters beyond his natural constituency. The twin exigencies of broadening his base and demonstrating that he isn't Hosni Mubarak in a different Rolex and a cardigan sweater means that, among other things, Shafiq may well run and potentially govern against the United States. The U.S.-Egypt relationship is too big and juicy a political target for Shafiq to ignore because it serves both of his political interests at once.

So you see, no dancing in the streets outside the State Department, the champagne will not flow at the Pentagon, the spies out in Langley won't declare a long weekend. Whether it is Morsi or Shafiq, the party is over for Washington. Rather it is time for Washington to take stock and adjust to Egypt's new reality.

 I left a comment in which I disagree with his take:

Can't say I agree with you Steve. Obama administration seemed ok with Brotherhood a few months ago and thought they would elect a president but defer to military on security policy. Core interests like Suez Canal passage, overflight, quasi-basing rights have been secured. A quick look at the latest Congressional foreign appropriations bill suggests full support for FMF and any "punishing" of Egypt is only taking place out of ESF, laughably. Also disagree with your take that Obama pushed Mubarak out. The Egyptian military did that to save itself, and the US has effectively backed its handling of the transition despite public statements to the contrary, since a military remaining in charge suggests continuity and more of the same on core issues: Israel and military cooperation. The exercise of the waiver on FMF (Foreign Military Financing) is the proof of this.

What, in any case, can the next Egyptian president really do to "govern against the United States"? Nothing important like ending military alliance, realigning itself with other regional powers. Egypt will just continue to be the difficult ally it was under Mubarak. You'll have issues that will consume a lot of media attention like the NGO affair but ultimately do not make a dent in bilateral relations, and many Congressmen completely willing to spread the myth that it's not the military but Fayza Aboul Naga who is to blame. The idea that Egypt-US relations have substantially changed is misleading, right now, as long as the military is in charge of key issues, it's more of the same until I see a US warship having to wait two weeks to get through the Canal or, at minimum, Egypt abandoning the Quartet policies and Roadmap on Israel/Palestine.

My evidence for little change in Egypt-US relations is that even as it backed a return to civilian rule, it also backed the military takeover from Mubarak from the get go (even though you might argue that legislation in place to suspend relations with states where a military coup has taken place should have been applied.) Subsequent behavior suggests continued backing for the military even when it repressed and killed protestors (the initial reason for backing the military was, after all, that it did not fire on protestors during the initial 2011 uprising) and when the government it appointed directly challenged the US over the NGO affair.

A glance at the latest Foreign Operations Appropriations bill suggests that Congress, too, is not eager to put any pressure of consequence on the Egyptian military. Consider angry Congress' reaction to the NGO debacle:

  • It conditions assistance on the governments being "sincere in the pursuit of democracy, based on Millennium Challenge Corporation standards;
  • It prohibits assistance if a government "is actively and significantly interfering with the operation of civil society organizations";
  • It reimburses the US government for the $5m expense of having paid the bail of the US citizens indicted in the NGO affair.

That sounds tough, right? Well not really: all of these conditions are only places on economic assistance, not the military aid package. So basically it punished civilian government for decisions made by the military, cutting from the aid package most Americans will go to democracy promotion, entrepreneurship, education, etc. But not F16s. (Overall economic aid to Egypt remains about the same $250m).

What's more, with regards to the national security waiver on conditionality for military aid, which have been exercised by every administration since first implemented in 2006,  new language has been added. While there is a demand for greater coordination with Congress before exercising a waiver. From an excellent POMED report [PDF] on this:

The national security waiver on Egypt’s FMF is only applicable to Egypt’s commitment to democratic processes and freedoms, and cannot be applied if the Government of Egypt fails to meet its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Additionally, a new provision requires the administration to consult with Congress prior to issuing a national security waiver if they elect to issue a waiver in FY13 as they did in the previous fiscal year.

Translated into plain English, this is a license to protect the military funding from being cut in cases of regression on democratic progress or abuse of human rights, and ensure it ONLY applies with regards to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. SCAF will get the message as follows: do what you want domestically, just don't mess with the Israelis. 

The fact is there is little serious concern about Egypt's transition in Congress or the US government more generally. There is concern about Israel, and about continued military cooperation with the Egyptians which makes many things easier for US military operations in the region. Yes, some politicians are offended by Egyptian behavior over the NGO crisis, which was a poke in the eye to politically-connected institutions such as IRI and NDI. But what happened just after that: no punishment on the Egyptian military which was behind the case, and the weaving of an unlikely tale swallowed by Congress and others by which a civilian female minister was able to wield awesome power and jeopardize bilateral relations.

A petulant Egypt provoking mini-crises over civil society and other issues as bargaining chips to protect the military relationship? Nothing very new in that, I'm afraid. With SCAF or its presidential candidate in charge, at least, it will be more business as usual.