U.S. detours on Egypt: stability before democracy?
The framework for their relationship appears to prioritize security and counterterrorism, while acknowledging differences on democratic promotion
In the last 48 hours, U.S. relations with Egypt have taken a partial detour towards the strategic framework that has dominated for the past three decades.
Resuming the delivery of ten Apache helicopters to Egypt’s military and the visits by senior Egyptian officials to Washington this week signal a desire on part of the Obama administration to prioritize stability and influence over democratic values at this juncture.
The 10 p.m. press release from the Pentagon on Tuesday which indicated Washington will deliver 10 Apache helicopters (held up after the ouster of former President Mohammad Mursi last June) marks a turning point in the U.S. position. It solidifies a shift to focus on counterterrorism and strategic interests with Egypt, despite the major setbacks in the transition to democracy.
The current government has launched a heavy crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, sentencing 529 of its supporters to death, branding the group as terrorist, and jailing many of its supporters as well as journalists.
As things stand, after a year of unprecedented frostiness in the U.S.-Egyptian relations, Washington is gradually abandoning the link between the 1.3 billion dollars in military aid and democratic values in Cairo. While it still gives money to support democratic measures, the U.S. administration is moving away from restricting military aid.
The Apache helicopters freeze was designed to pressure the army into transitioning to democracy in return for security. Yet, it has achieved neither. In the last year, security and democracy have taken a hit in Egypt, and the consequences have been felt both in Washington and Cairo, as well as on regional stability.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. administration designated Ansar Bayt Maqdis, a militant group operating mostly in Sinai, as a terrorist organization. The ABM designation and the Apache delivery indicate a reshuffle of priorities inside the Obama administration to increase intelligence sharing and counterterrorism.Joyce Karam
In its statement, the Pentagon for the first time tied Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts to “United States’ national security interest.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed that “Egypt remains, as it has been for decades, an important strategic partner” and that he will certify to Congress that sending aid is “upholding its obligations under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.”
Kerry has been a major advocate in the Obama administration for easing tension with the new leadership in Egypt and toning down the criticism over the crackdown, while the White House was more reluctant to do so.
What strengthened Kerry’s hand is the situation in the Sinai peninsula and the sharp rise in attacks from extremist groups targeting tourists, Israelis, and Egyptian security in the last few months.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. administration designated Ansar Bayt Maqdis, a militant group operating mostly in Sinai, as a terrorist organization. The ABM designation and the Apache delivery indicate a reshuffle of priorities inside the Obama administration to increase intelligence sharing and counterterrorism.
It is worth noting that the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Mohammad El-Tohamy arrived in Washington ahead of the decision, and is holding high level meetings this week.
Influence and alternatives
Egypt’s foreign minister Nabil Fahmy is also due in Washington this weekend. He is a familiar face to many U.S. policymakers, having served as ambassador to Washington between 1999 till 2008.
Additionally, according to Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor, the U.S. is planning to nominate its current ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft as the next U.S. ambassador in Cairo.
The increased diplomatic traffic between Washington and Cairo, coupled with the heightened concern over terrorism, could translate into better relations between the two governments following presidential elections at the end of next month.
Egypt’s former military leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, responsible for big part of the crackdown, is poised to win according to the polls, and Washington has very few alternatives other than dealing with him.
Sisi’s visit to Russia last February, during which he met Russian President Vladimir Putin and kicked off negotiations on a two billion dollar military sales deal, is not good news to the Obama administration.
At a time when Putin is defying Obama on the global stage from Ukraine to Syria, losing Egypt is the last thing that this administration wants. There is no doubt that Washington holds superiority when it comes to military equipment; an American F-16 has many advantages over its Russian counterpart.
However, Cairo could still turn to Moscow with the support of regional allies if Washington turns a cold shoulder.
For now, resuming the Apache deliveries and holding high level talks ahead of the presidential elections on May 26 and 27, could help establish a broader framework for Egyptian-U.S. relations in a the likely Sisi presidency.
The framework, as it appears, prioritizes security and counterterrorism, while acknowledging differences on democratic promotion.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam