The U.S. first scratched the base of its relations with Egypt and has foolishly shaken these ties to the bone so that the scratch has developed into a rift that will not be easily healed.
Washington tampered with the foundation laid with Cairo about 40 years ago and has also withheld part of the aid that lies at the core of the two countries’ relations. The U.S. has yet to strike at Egyptians’ livelihoods but, significantly it has moved from hurling threats to taking action.
Washington has so far refrained from crippling the Egyptian army’s weaponry systems as it has not suspended the delivery of spare parts. Still, it suggests this may be an option. Separate actions may be more ominous than acting in one go. Recent measures taken by the U.S., although ineffective, have sent a message to Cairo that the worst-case scenario has become a reality.
Always a possibility
Since the Egyptian army started to depend on U.S. aid that underlined the regional security system over the years, there has been a common expectation among Egyptians and their military establishment that the day would come, whether as a way of pressure or due to dire financial straits, when Washington would cut this assistance.
Thus, the recent U.S. decision to suspend delivery of military hardware and withholding cash support has not come as surprise. It was always expected in Egypt. However, when the U.S. occasionally threatened to halt aid, both sides were aware that the threat would not veer off into the no-go area, i.e. military assistance. But it has eventually transpired that the U.S., however dithering it may appear, could go to such lengths.
Commentary in multiple American and European newspapers has concluded that by taking the recent decision, Washington has lost its influence over Egypt. This is more or less true.
A two-sided discussion
Washington did not think of the possibility that political Islamists could fail as rulers.Abdullah Kamal
Still, the issue has two sides. First: the U.S. has built relations with Egypt on the basis of its pursuit of a host of strategic regional interests, mainly preserving Egyptian-Israeli peace. Washington has developed other priorities related to its plan to integrate political Islamist groups into the Middle East political process, mainly in Egypt. Thus, the issue is no longer limited to Israel’s peace and security. It has also extended to U.S. security.
Washington did not think of the possibility that political Islamists could fail as rulers. Egyptians were so angry with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule that they deposed the country’s so-called first democratically elected president. But the U.S. has yet to be convinced that a popular revolt in Egypt has triggered this fast-paced regional development with its global consequences. It still labors under the illusion that pressure on Egypt can result in allowing the Brotherhood some room in the country’s political process and that this might coax militant groups around the world to believe that Washington continues to back their strategic engagement.
With this in mind, the U.S. has made the Egyptian public increasingly convinced that Washington sides with a project, which is antagonistic to Egypt’s nationalism. The U.S. has also fostered conviction among the Brotherhood’s opponents that the Islamist group promotes an American agenda. The recent U.S. decision about military aid to Egypt has further deepened this belief at different levels. That said, any Egyptian politician, perceived as bowing to U.S. pressure or demands, risks losing credibility with many Egyptians. This will be the last thing any politician wants.
The other side of the issue pertains to U.S. pressure that has amounted to sanctions—although this is not the case in practice. This pressure has touched one key pillar related to Egyptians’ patriotic feelings, namely the army’s interests. To the Egyptian public, the army is like the gigantic and vital High Dam in the south of the country. Therefore, Egyptians view any attempt to undermine the national army a threat signaling wide divisions and chaos, a perception that would trigger defiance.
The U.S. unwittingly inflames national feelings and anti-Americanism in Egypt. Furthermore, its attempt to re-integrate the Brotherhood into Egypt’s political process is doomed, spawning further popular feelings of hostility towards the group.
At the same time, the Egyptian army is prodded to take precautions lest the U.S. should take further moves to end military aid, spare parts, technology, etc. This explains the repeated statements recently attributed to military sources that Egypt plans to diversify sources of its armament. A logical expectation is that Egypt will shift its sights away from the U.S. and Europe to procure weapons. At the end of the day, Egyptians harbor true doubts about the intentions of the West as a whole towards the Egyptian national project and religious militancy.
The big picture
The situation assumes larger regional dimensions, given the Arab depth developed by the anti-Brotherhood project in the Middle East. In other words, defiant feelings about the US won’t be confined to an Egyptian showdown, whether it is overt or otherwise. The defiance will also have Gulf and Arab implications.
Although the crisis has not reached its peak-- due to involved partners’ keenness to avoid escalation, the situation is actually heading for further complication in view of massive public attention. Ordinary Arabs believe that the situation is crucial.
As things are standing, those managing the crisis on both sides may find it hard to defuse it by resorting to flexibility or maneuvering.
With all this in mind, the current crisis will drag on until the end of Obama’s term. The U.S. president’s pressure is unlikely to prompt Egypt to change tack strategically, especially towards the military establishment that basks in massive local and regional support. Nor is it likely that Washington will be pleased or feel reassured about U.S. national security against threats of terror by the mere inclusion of non-militant Islamists into Egypt’s political process.
Abdullah Kamal is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst and an adviser to al-Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo. He is currently writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of "The Penultimate Pharaoh." He has been editor-in-chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005–2011) and a member of the Shoura Council (2007 – 2011).