Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decline of President Obama’s invitation to attend a summit next week in Washington D.C. is the most recent skirmish in U.S.-Egypt relations.
Sisi will not be attending the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, al-Hayat newspaper reported on Tuesday.
After the military’s takeover following mass protests in 2013, Egyptian authorities cracked-down on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the United States saw as a set-back in the democratization of the country. In response, the Obama administration suspended military aid to Egypt last year; a sign of deteriorating relations.
By halting aid, the U.S. is prioritizing its democratic ambitions for the Middle East over its long-term strategic relations, Dr. Eric Trager Wagner Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained. While the Obama administration sought a more democratic Egypt, it failed to recognize “the dominance of undemocratic forces”, Trager told Al Arabiya News.
The United States’ support of Mursi’s government ignored how quickly he was losing support and alienating the Egyptian public, he added.
James Toth, Professor of anthropology at Zayed University, explains that the “uneasiness” is only temporary, and relations will soon go back to normal. Toth, who has written extensively on Egypt, owes Sisi’s decline of the invitation to the “anti-American climate” post the 2013 change in power. “He doesn’t want to be seen too close to the U.S” he added. He explains that this is an effort to appear “bold and honorable” to the Egyptian public.
Egyptians who prioritize economic prosperity over democracy see economic assistance linked to democratic reform as a means of controlling Egypt, a Brookings paper explains. “I am ready to forget everything about my own freedom for an Egypt that does not have to ask for handouts from the international community!” an Al Azhar professor is cited saying in the paper.
Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. is largely based on its ability to foster peace with Israel. Military aid compromises a massive part of this relationship, which has allowed Egypt’s military to become the most powerful institution in the country, creating a “reliable U.S. partner”, a report from the Council of Foreign Relations explains. These ties are considered pivotal in the U.S.’s “ability to project and protect its strategic interests in the world's most volatile region”, the report concludes.
Relations may not be as amicable as they were when Mursi was president, but Toth explains that this is natural following an unexpected change in leadership.
Trager owes Sisi’s decline of the invitation to the Egyptian government’s preference that Sisi’s first visit as president to the U.S. be a bi-lateral rather than a multilateral meeting, which explains why he sent his Prime Minister instead of attending the conference himself. Additionally, U.S. Congress unlocked last month $557 million of Egypt’s annual $1.5 billion military aid.
While Sisi will reportedly not be attending the summit, he clearly continues to value relations with the U.S.
Trager says Egypt’s new president is simply responding to an “[the U.S.’s] ambiguous foreign policy” and “hasn’t acted out,” citing American ships’ continued privileged passage through the Suez Canal as an example. Although Obama’s invitation was a positive sign, Trager says relations “will only improve once the U.S. clarifies its policy towards Egypt.”