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If America wants to rescue its influence in Egypt, it must reconcile its contesting interests, before it is too late

January 27, 2014 at 1:31 pm

America has a problem with Egypt: that much is obvious. Ever since President Mohammed Morsi was deposed by the military on 3 July, the US and other western powers have been scrambling around to find a coherent response to the crisis. This has become more pressing as the bloodshed escalates. Hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed in military crackdowns, calling into question the $1.3bn that America channels into the Egyptian army every year.

There has been increasing pressure within the US – including from some senators – to halt these payments. In fact, a congressional mechanism exists to automatically cancel military aid in the event of a coup, but America’s leaders have thus far refused to term the Egyptian takeover as such, so aid continues. Before Morsi was ousted, during widespread street protests against his rule, US diplomats reportedly urged top military officials to avoid deposing the president. These attempts were unsuccessful, but the US has, regardless of this, made efforts to retain good relations with the military.

Why is this? The first, most oft-cited reason is ideological. The Wall Street Journal characterises it thus: “Egypt has become the leading edge in an epic struggle now under way across the Middle East. This struggle isn’t between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It’s between those who want secular governments and those who want Islamic governments, and this may be a defining moment.” Clearly, the US and other western powers instinctively want to be on the side of the secularists. Siding with Islamists would be incoherent in the context of the global war on terror and quite simply, western powers fear Islamist governments (even if those governments are not promoting violence). On the other hand, the west instinctively sides with democracy. America’s Middle Eastern wars – in Iraq and in Afghanistan – have been predicated on the idea of exporting democracy. What to do, then, when the secularists are violating democratic principles, or when democracy brings in an Islamist government, as it has across the region?

A second, equally important reason is strategic goals. Discussing the question of military aid, the New York Times argues that “this money has always been intended to secure foreign policy outcomes, not domestic political arrangements that the United States favours.” By financially supporting the Egyptian military over many decades, the US has ensured peace with Israel, access to the Suez Canal, and assistance in counter-terrorism programmes. These were the aims under military dictator Hosni Mubarak, and remained the aims during Morsi’s time in power. Despite the ostensibly anti-US rhetoric of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, there was enough co-operation to mediate a recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas. Cutting off military aid has serious strategic consequences. America cut off military aid to Pakistan in 1990 due to concerns about nuclear proliferation. Relations deteriorated; Pakistani officials stopped going to the US for training. While aid has now been restored, communication and co-operation is not back where it was. This has a direct impact on America’s counter-terrorism goals in Pakistan. It does not want to risk a similar situation in Egypt.

A third factor in the US predicament is pressure from regional allies. While on the one hand, Congress is increasingly calling for America to pull back from supporting the military regime, on the other, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are pushing for more support. These three countries are not traditionally allies – neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE formally recognise Israel or have diplomatic ties – but share strategic goals in Egypt, particularly countering Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. While Israel is not directly co-ordinating efforts with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the three countries are all rallying support for Egypt’s new regime. Saudi and UAE officials are reportedly encouraging the military to continue to aggressively confront the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. This is in direct opposition to the US policy of encouraging reconciliation and working behind the scenes for a diplomatic solution. Israel is more cautious, afraid that this could encourage Islamist insurgency, but it is pressurising the US to continue military aid, fearing that cutting it off could jeopardise Israel’s counter-terror programmes.

Ever since Mubarak was ousted in 2011, the US has attempted to please everyone in Egypt, but appears to have done the opposite. Diplomatic efforts to persuade Morsi to compromise with protesters and military, and then to persuade the military not to depose Morsi, have all failed. Refusing to call the deposition a coup has angered Muslim Brotherhood supporters; yet the interim government and military rulers are also displeased with the US for what they see as unconditional support for Morsi while he was in power. If America wants to rescue some of its influence in Egypt, it must find a way to reconcile its contesting interests in the country and locate a coherent middle ground, before it is too late.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.