Against Obama, Sisi gets the last laugh
Returning to business as usual with Egypt is being interpreted in Cairo as a victory for Sisi
The “free and fair elections” and the “inclusive government” that the Obama administration once called for in Egypt is now part of a long wishful list for the 44th U.S. President in the Middle East. The “rule of law” and the “transition to democracy” did not transpire in Cairo, prompting Washington to reverse its punitive path and resume the military aid to Egypt, being withheld since 2013.
Obama’s reversal this week of his own decision concludes this administration’s failed experiment in Egypt. The Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi joins the club of many Middle East leaders who outmaneuvered Obama and forced a change in U.S. calculus instead of the changing theirs. Sisi did so through a strategy that challenged Obama regionally and on his own turf in Washington, while clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and executing a new power grab.
The full resumption of military aid to Egypt, and this time with no strings attached is an admission that the policy of the last two years fell flat. The U.S. administration is practically meeting all Sisi’s demands without Egypt’s strongman giving an inch, not even promising parliamentary elections or the release of political prisoners.
Returning to business as usual with Egypt is being interpreted in Cairo as a slam dunk victory for Sisi. “Sisi conquered Obama,” claimed one paper, while another declared “America retreats against Egypt” with its delivery of the F-16s fighters, the battle tanks, the Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the $1.3 billion in aid.
How Sisi came on top is not an enigma, and his strategy borrows from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and others who defied Washington and succeeded. Since 2013 and the suspension of the aid, Sisi embarked on his own roadmap ignoring Obama’s pleas for reforms and to engage the Muslim Brotherhood. His roadmap had three major pillars: isolate and weaken the Brotherhood; guarantee a regional umbrella; and maintain strong ties with both Israel and the U.S. Congress. It emphasized security and counterterrorism, something that Washington, albeit all the talk, still prioritizes over democratization and orderly transition.
The Egyptian political elite around Sisi were confident, since late 2013, that the Obama administration would “come around” and eventually release the full aid. An Egyptian diplomat explained that going to Russia and France for arms’ deals worth of $3.5 and $5.9 billion respectively, played in Egypt’s favor in forcing the U.S. to review its decision. It showed that Cairo has alternatives, though most of the spare parts and military to military relations in Egypt are dependent on U.S. shipments and expertise helping the country since its peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Gaining the support of the Arab Gulf countries - especially the UAE and Saudi - gave Sisi both an economic and a political lifeline. Even Qatar, one of Sisi’s staunchest opponents, reconciled some of its differences following the start of “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen. The Prince of Qatar Sheikh Tamim was warmly received by Sisi during the Arab Summit in Sharm Sheikh last Sunday, and soon after, Doha returned its Ambassador to Egypt.
As Sisi weakened the Brotherhood by targeting its political infrastructure, and jailing its top leaders, he bridged ties with the West and the U.S. Congress, trumpeting the cards of stability, minority rights and counterterrorism. A congressional delegation led by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to Cairo from both parties last month confessed to Sisi their “admiration” , and pledged support through economic investments. This has put the White House in an even tougher spot in attempting to pressure the Egyptian President.
While publicly and in comments to the New York Times, U.S. officials, said the timing of the aid release “was not directly related to the swirling crosscurrents now roiling the Middle East”, including the “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen, and the war in neighboring Libya, or the potential deal with Iran, it is almost impossible to isolate these developments from the U.S. decision.
Egypt’s crucial role in Libya, and as a key partner in the Yemen coalition with the largest ground force in the Arab world, mandated more U.S. support. Releasing the aid now is also a message to the Arab allies, and partners in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC), that Washington is committed to their security and a nuclear deal with Iran will not come at their expense. Whether this message will resonate is an open question.
It was U.S. strategic interests with Egypt which includes adhering to the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel, fighting terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, and maintaining access through the Suez Canal, that triumphed in agreeing to abandon the carrot and stick strategy. The wing in the administration that supported a stronger push for democracy in Middle East, led by National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been outdone by the “pragmatists” such as Secretary of State John Kerry who advocated for accepting Sisi in 2013.
In releasing the aid to Egypt, Obama went to the old playbook of Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” A policy rule that will bring more F-16 fighters to Egypt and more “victories” for Sisi.
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
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