The story of American-Egyptian relations

I recently finished reading the memoirs of Dr. Saadeddine Ibrahim, professor of Political Sociology at the American University of Cairo and many other Arab and foreign universities, first chief of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, of the Arab council for childhood and motherhood and of the Arab Thought Forum in Jordan and founder and owner of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

The man’s history includes a lot more achievements. Reading his memoirs reminded me of an incident that happened in February 1981 when a seminar was organized on Egyptian-American relations by the American Enterprise Institute. During this seminar, Ibrahim presented a document, the analytical model of which I think may be useful in understanding the current relationship between the two countries.

The model was based on comparing relations among countries with relations among people, particularly between men and women as the relationship between the latter passes through phases that begin with courtship, during which each party seeks to know the other’s limits and capabilities. This is where interest and psychological consensus is specified and where each person’s responsibilities, whether family ones or any other, are made clear. If things are positive, the couple takes the relationship to the next level, that is the engagement. This phase has an amount of commitment that requires more disclosure. In addition to that, mutual ambitions that may reach the extent of dreams emerge. This phase is followed by marriage, accompanied by the honeymoon which makes things look like the couple has become one in vision and opinion.

But since things change, it’s only a matter of time before they discover each other’s defects which were previously diminished. This causes small arguments that quickly turn violent, thus leading to divorce.

I now pronounce you husband and wife

At the beginning of 1981, Saadeddine Ibrahim applied this model on American-Egyptian relations. Back then, a new administration led by Ronald Reagan, the republican with the conservative vision, was born. The courtship phase began in the wake of the October 1973 War. Henry Kissinger, whom late President Anwar al-Sadat referred to as “my friend Kissinger,” became a permanent visitor toof Cairo. After Kissinger, Jimmy Carter became Sadat’s friend too. The two parties cooperated to reach the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

The Egyptian-American connection paved the way towards a honeymoon which Reagan’s administration had warned of canceling due to several reasons. Perhaps the most important of these reasons is that Reagan no longer viewed the Middle East with the same importance as his predecessors (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.) Although this model is somehow light and funny, it seems appropriate when it comes to understanding American-Egyptians relations, whether before or after 1981. Somehow, the relationship between Washington and Cairo has passed through the same phases between 1952 and 1956. During this time, there was the optimistic discovery with the eruption of the July revolution.

Then there was the divorce when the proposal to help build the High Dam was withdrawn. Then there was the Eisenhower project and the clash in Lebanon in 1958. The latter led to a divorce that lasted until Kennedy’s administration noticed the importance of rebuilding bridges. This was some sort of courtship that ended in a clash with America’s withdrawal of the wheat aid shipments in 1965 and the severance of diplomatic ties with the eruption of the 1967 June War.

Cutting the honeymoon short

Reagan’s administration definitely interrupted the Egyptian-American honeymoon. The 1980s witnessed many light and heavy arguments, but relations lasted due to Egypt’s political and diplomatic activity. Egyptian-Soviet relations were also restored, and there was also American aid to Egypt, which at that time reached $1.3 billion in military aid and $815 million in economic aid. In all cases, the relationship remained but it was somehow cold. It remained as such until the moment to renew what was in the past came. That moment was when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Amidst this flagrant threat against the region’s security, Egyptian-American relations were ready for a new honeymoon that lasted for the entire decade of the 1990s. During this period, Kuwait was liberated, the Arab-Israeli peace process began and produced the Jordanian-Israeli peace and the Oslo Accords. Egypt, and particularly Sharm al-Sheikh, was a center of negotiating and dealing with crises and obstacles. Egypt was also a passage for American forces in the East. If it hadn’t been for the big argument regarding Israeli nuclear weapons and the treaty to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons during the mid-1990s, this decade would have been a period of close relations.

It’s always difficult to determine the exact time when relations began to deteriorate. As the new century began, Egypt first thought that the George Bush administration would be the same as Bush senior’s. But the situation wasn’t as such. The new president wasn’t only thoughtless but he was also surrounded by a group of obsessed neoconservatives. The Sept. 11 twin attacks ignited a potential energy of aggression in American behavior. This appeared in invading Iraq and Afghanistan and accusing Arab countries, particularly Egypt, of being responsible for terrorism due to its lack of democracy.

America filed for divorce after it withdrew, froze and suspended aid

Abdelmonem Said

During the last phase of the Bush administration, fights reached the maximum level of violence regarding the second Palestinian intifada and the American behavior towards Iraq and the Islamic world. Egypt had suffered from terrorism, like other countries, but the American manner of dealing with it terrorism through bad relations with major countries in the region was of a twisted methodology and had poor results. Bush’s second presidential term failed to soothe relations between Cairo and Washington, and it appeared as though Barack Obama’s term could pave way towards a new era of relations.

What’s strange is that Cairo, during George Bush’s presidential term, was subject to right-wing’s criticism because it was considered undemocratic. But now during the new era of Obama, the criticism comes from the left-wing which beleives that democracy will not exist in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, except through the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The logic wasn’t straight and the movement collapsed after the June revolution. America filed for divorce after it withdrew, froze and suspended aid. No one in Cairo was willing to accept this logic. What’s left is a thin line of aid and few phone calls between ministers of defense. The current relations are thus in a phase of separation and divorce is usually the natural result of a separation that lasts for an extended period.

This article was first published in al-Sharq al-Awsat on Nov. 6, 2013.

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Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.

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