Egypt has always found itself in the crosshairs of history, balancing precariously between its glorious past as the arbiter of all things Arab and its own increasingly unwieldy and imploding societal demands. It struggles to stay afloat, to find its way out of an impossible demographic dilemma and the contending forces of authoritarianism and the specter of militant Islam. As Fouad Ajami wrote more than twenty years ago “A fissure has opened, right in the heart of Egypt’s traditionally stoic and reliable middle class.
It all started so well. On a trip designed to symbolize a “new beginning” in America’s relations with “the Muslim world” after the terrorism-focused anxiety of the George W. Bush years, President Barack Obama scheduled visits in June 2009 to Cairo and Riyadh, capitals of America’s two leading Arab allies. And to underscore the message, the White House pointedly excluded a stop in America’s lone democratic ally in the region, Israel, which the previous president had visited (twice!) the previous year.
When then-Defense Minister Abdel Fatah el-Sisi responded to mass protests in July 2013 by ousting the country’s first elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Cairo’s Gulf allies rushed to keep Egypt afloat economically. Within months, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait sent approximately $7 billion in aid, and they pledged an additional $12 billion in aid after Sisi won the barely contested May 2014 presidential elections.
As U.S.-Egypt relations have come under significant strain in the post-Mubarak era, Egypt has sought to rebalance its international relations and has begun hedging through an assiduous focus on ties with Russia. For the United States, this hedging behavior should be cause for moderate concern and vigilance but not alarm.
The thousands of Egyptian mourners greeting the body of Omar Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” alarmed many of their countrymen who had hoped the elderly Jihadist cleric had become irrelevant. Abdel Rahman’s funeral sent a signal that although Islamists may be a numerical minority—and are for the time being politically defeated—their ideas still very much resonate with a sizeable cross section of this country of 90 million.
During the past sixty years, Israel’s relationship with Egypt completed a full cycle. In the late 1950’s in the aftermath of two wars with Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser leading the revolutionary pan Arab camp, it was Israel’s most formidable and implacable Arab enemy. Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, saw no hope of breaking the wall of Arab hostility led by Egypt and decided to leap frog over it by formulating and implementing a policy known as “the alliance with the periphery.”
Any observer of the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the last few months will have noticed considerable tensions. This is unexpected since Riyadh had strongly backed President Sisi’s government after the 2013 military coup, offering tens of billions of dollars in aid and fuel supplies, and Cairo in return had pledged its full diplomatic, political and military support for the kingdom.
For a man who has challenged almost all conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy, President Trump’s first phone call to his Egyptian counterpart after taking office could have been copied from any of his predecessors since the late 70’s. Stressing the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries, he affirmed his commitment to deepening a relationship “which has helped both countries overcome challenges in the region for decades.”