With Egypt in turmoil and the U.S. officially “favoring” the protests (via Obama’s indirect support), I’ve been scratching my head on what has happened to this once critical relationship. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Egypt changed strategy 180 degrees to embrace the United States. Egypt then struck a peace accord with Israel, a critical step for the U.S. strategy in that region. It is well known that with Egypt’s cooperation, America’s foot-hold in the Middle East was greatly enhanced. For example, the U.S. military have rights to fly over Egypt. U.S. naval ships have priority access through the Suez Canal. In exchange, Egypt was given massive “aid.” By Marian Wang’s count, it has totaled well above $60 billion to date.
So, what went wrong? Why isn’t the U.S. interested in propping up Mubarak anymore?
Editors over at Middle East Quarterly published in December 1995 a ten-point summary, “Does American Aid Help Egypt?” by Aryan Nasif, who wrote in The Left, a Cairese journal, argued the “aid” came with tremendous hardship. Don’t get me wrong, the Egyptian government must take responsibility too, for taking the “aid” and for accepting the terms attached. Amongst Nasif’s points, he said:
The U.S. mutual security law states explicitly that no economic or technical aid may be granted to any country unless it strengthens U.S. security.
First of all, forget what the U.S. media says or what the Western “human rights” activists say. The U.S. government says (very honestly in fact), when “aid” is given, they are solely for the purpose of strengthening U.S. security. That is fair and makes complete sense. Conversely, when China says trade without strings attached, that is also honest. These are the two cold faces of the coin that characterizes the interchange between nation states.
A lot has changed in the Middle East in the last two decades. The second Iraq Invasion has secured permanent military bases in that country for the U.S.. The U.S. is also in Afghanistan now. The USSR no longer exists, and as a sole super power, the U.S. has much more room to maneuver unilaterally in that region. There is no longer a strong need for Egypt as a broker between the U.S. and other players there.
Back in 2000, many Americans have already started to question Egypt’s relevance to the U.S.. Steven A. Cook enumerated in “Egypt – Still America’s Partner?” many instances where Egypt have in fact gone against U.S. wishes. He said, “this is a troubled relationship and ripe for serious review.”
What’s more instructive of the American view about Egypt was articulated by Samuel J. Spector in the summer of 2005, titled, “Washington and Cairo – Near the Breaking Point?” Below are his concluding remarks:
For more than two decades, U.S. policymakers have viewed Egypt as an invaluable ally in Washington’s effort to ensure regional stability and moderation. Yet, with faithfulness to Cairo’s historical mission as the heart and soul of the Arab world guiding its behavior for the past half-century, Egypt has consistently sought to quash any challenge to its role as the Arab world’s paramount broker of moderation and stability. To Cairo’s decisionmakers, such goals take a back seat to preventing the emergence of any new order—including democratization—that Egypt cannot dominate. As long as democracy promotion remains a major component of U.S. policy, diplomatic conflagrations between Cairo and Washington are likely to become not the exception, but the rule. A change at the top will likely not soothe relations. Democratic reforms notwithstanding, any successor to Mubarak is unlikely to shift Egyptian national priorities away from its claim to be the regional power broker. To do so would betray the attitude of Egyptian exceptionalism that has driven successive leaders to perpetuate a sometimes deleterious sense of national glory.
In March 2000, then-Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa stated that differences between the United States and Egypt on certain issues are to be expected. “After all, America is a global power with international interests,” he said. “Egypt, meanwhile, is a regional power whose interests are closely linked to the heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds, the African continent, and the Mediterranean. So, it is only normal that our perspectives on certain issues be different.”
Moussa’s words are just as true today as they were five years ago when they were uttered. Egyptian and U.S. national interests may overlap, but they need not be identical to enable a fruitful partnership to exist. Yet, the critical question now is whether their differences have grown to such a degree that they overrule the possibility of a mutually-beneficial U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship continuing into the future.
There are few things worth noting in the above. Regarding “democracy promotion,” that’s really euphemism for neutering states so that they are friendly towards the U.S.. Remember the mutual security law I quoted at the top of this post. There is no such thing as “democracy promotion” in reality. There is only security promotion.
In Spector’s article, he talks about a “new Middle East.” Indeed true given that the USSR is no longer and the fact that the U.S. now occupies Iraq and Afghanistan. I can see the Egyptian desire to continue that regional power broker role is probably more of a hindrance now than anything else.
Amr Moussa’s statement about Egypt’s regional interests conflicting with the U.S.’s international interests is very interesting. We have heard that before somewhere, haven’t we? Remember Japan’s former prime minister Hatoyama? Martin Jacques thought Hatoyama might have been able to bring Japan closer to Asia. I had that same thought when Hatoyama first took office and pronounced the importance of an East Asian Community. Unfortunately, the prime minister had to resign not too long after that.
Couple of posts ago I mentioned an article by Shaun Rein on what the Chinese leaders can learn from this Egyptian crisis. I think there is a lesson for Japan too. Well, they likely already know. Nation states look after their own interests first. Japan could remain stagnant for a very long time, and as the Plaza Accord has shown, the country can be forced to harm itself to benefit the U.S.. The U.S. could remain in recession for a long time while China steams ahead. What is critical is that countries hedge their geopolitical positions. That is key to keeping the doors open for completely normalizing future relations. In this regard, I think China, Japan, and the U.S. are largely doing that.
Finally, I’ll quote from a debate hosted by the Middle East Quarterly back in 2000, titled, “The United States and Egypt – How Allied? A Debate“:
Bannerman: The relationship is much broader now than twenty-two years ago at the time of the Camp David summit. It will continue to evolve but each side must continue to work at it, not take it for granted. The United States is much more likely to take the relationship for granted and to make mistakes. It will not always be a smooth ride because Egypt is an important and independent partner. Therefore, its leaders will stand up to us and disagree with us—as some other states do not because they can’t afford to do so. It will be a frank, honest relationship with the normal bumps in the road. Is it likely to get stronger? Yes, the relationship is likely to grow stronger.
Obviously we don’t know yet what is going to happen to Egypt. From the look of things, I think optimists can be wrong too.
That brings me back to the China-U.S. relationship. People who are interested in a peaceful relationship between the two countries should actively work to promote peace. Taking the relationship for granted can lead to problems.
This Bannerman could not have been more right back in 2000 on that particular point.