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. Eight years after Saudis and Egyptians wreaked havoc on September 11, the leaders of those countries had reason to believe the fresh face in the White House was keen to rebuild America’s traditional partnerships in the Middle East.
But the seminal speech that President Obama delivered in Cairo dashed those hopes. Delivered not to parliament, like speeches he would give in Ottawa and London, but to a by-invitation-only gathering at Cairo University, the president of the United States uttered not a single word toward the president of Egypt – not a word of thanks for his hospitality, not a word of gratitude for Egypt’s quarter-century fulfillment of peace with Israel, not a word of appreciation for the 36,000-man Egyptian force sent to assist America in the war to liberate Kuwait 18 years earlier. Instead, after insisting that Egyptian authorities admit a Muslim Brotherhood delegation into the campus auditorium to attend the speech, the president spoke over the heads of Egypt’s ruling elite in order to, as he said, “eradicate years of mistrust.”
This was a new tack for an American president. Since Richard Nixon, previous chief executives had embraced strategic partnerships with Egypt’s military-backed leaders, a policy which helped stabilize the eastern Mediterranean under a U.S.-led umbrella of peace and security. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush was the first president to focus seriously on internal political change, supporting Egypt’s small coterie of liberal democratic activists (real and faux) with direct funding and even White House protection. But while that shift was an affront to the powers-that-be, it was not a threat, given how marginal they were in Cairo’s political firmament.
Whether he knew it or not, Obama’s “new beginning” outreach to Muslims – not as Egyptians, Tunisians or people with some other nationality but as adherents to a trans-national religion – was fundamentally different and profoundly threatening. While the president scaled back Bush-era democracy-promotion efforts to avoid the charge of endorsing a strategy of regime change, to the always-paranoid (sometimes justifiably so) political leadership in Cairo he seemed to lend America’s stamp of approval to the Islamist project that, for decades, offered itself -- sometimes violently, sometimes not -- as the alternative to the military-led nationalists.
Just eighteen months after Obama lit the fuse with his Cairo speech, the holder of the nationalist flame – President Hosni Mubarak – was forced from power. After three decades in power, the final years of which saw him grow increasingly isolated, mercurial and dictatorial, Mubarak’s fall was largely of his own making. And, it is important to note, at the critical moments in late January/early February 2011 when the Obama administration watched its longtime Egyptian partner being pushed from office, the assumption of key White House officials was that the reins of power would be inherited by people like him: military men with similarly pro-west worldviews – only a bit younger. (Of course, with the rise and then fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, history took a detour, but that is a different story.) Still, in considering the various factors that led to the demise of America’s longest serving Arab ally, Obama’s role in kicking down the strategic pillars undergirding the U.S.-Egypt partnership and offering instead a religion-focused vision for U.S. engagement with the world should not be overlooked.
To a certain extent, the fact that America was willing to see chaos and instability in Egypt as an acceptable step on the road to what it viewed as a more just political future reflected Egypt’s diminished role in Obama administration strategy toward the broader Middle East.
- At a moment when the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was dominated by Washington’s row with Jerusalem over settlement construction – a clash which allowed for a paltry two weeks of direct negotiations over the entire eight years of President Obama’s two terms – there was little room for Egypt’s traditional role as a bridge between Arabs and Israel.
- At a moment when the President opted to refrain from employing any American power to advance U.S. interests in Syria, there was little room there for Egypt’s traditional role as Arab legitimizer of American force-projection in the region.
- At a moment when the White House tired from even its limited policy of “leading from behind” in Libya, there was little room for U.S. policy to acknowledge Egyptian equities in the pivotal country to its west.
- And at a moment when the Administration was focused on an Iran nuclear deal whose “benefits” included a regional rebalancing between Tehran and the region’s Sunni Arab states, envisioning a process in which – in the President’s words -- they would “share” power and influence, there was little room to prioritize the interests of Washington’s most significant Arab military partner.
The result of this was decay of the U.S.-Egypt strategic partnership. This was symbolized by the freeze placed on much of America’s military aid to Egypt in October 2013, about three months after millions of Egyptians went to the streets calling on the army to remove Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, which it promptly did.
Eighteen months later, in late March 2015, the Obama administration lifted the military aid suspension and the flow of high-profile sophisticated weapons resumed. But that decision was accompanied by new conditions as to the financing and content of weapons purchases and it came painfully slowly, almost a year after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the leader of the 2013 military takeover, won election in the country’s May 2014 presidential vote. And while they met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, el-Sisi never visited Washington while Obama was in the White House.
To be sure, Egyptian leaders of the post-Muslim Brotherhood era bear their share of responsibility for the decline in the relationship with Washington. They traffic in the most bizarre anti-American conspiracy theories, direct military aid toward pet projects that often have no connection to the real threats and challenges facing the country, and are shockingly and brutally heavy-handed against critics of all varieties, Islamist and non-Islamist alike. Despite this, on regional political issues, they often displayed surprising good sense – showing real backbone in withstanding Saudi blackmail to dispatch troops to join the Yemen quagmire, taking firm measures to end the subterranean flow of weapons to Gaza and building an unprecedented partnership with Israel against common enemies. In cold-blooded fashion, without donning blinders to the eccentricities and outrages one can find in Cairo without looking too hard, an administration with a different set of priorities might have found a way to take advantage of the real opportunities presented by a Sisi-led Egypt.
That sort of cooperation without illusions – on Libya, Sinai, and Arab-Israeli peace, for example -- is what the Trump administration may find on offer with Egypt today. For its part, Washington should expect to provide Egypt’s military leaders the political embrace that Obama was always reluctant to offer, but also requests from Egyptians that it would compensate them in the currency that matters most – U.S. regional leadership that would lead to a resumption of Saudi and other Gulf assistance to help Cairo weather crushing economic problems. Even with this sort of cold bargain, frictions will persist, especially if Egypt maintains such tight strictures on political life that, by comparison, make the Mubarak era seem like Egypt’s Jeffersonian moment. But, to borrow a phrase from another era, it would at least be a “new beginning.”