Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

On alliances

A recent article in the US press criticising Egypt as an ally revealed some typical American disingenuousness, writes Tewfick Aclimandos


Some weeks ago, two members of the US foreign policy community cosigned a newspaper opinion article stating that Egypt was a “terrible ally” for the US. Many Egyptians, including myself, were terribly upset. A good friend and a former senior civil servant said that the piece should be taken as a kind of “medal” and proof to opponents that Egypt was not a US stooge. However, most pondered the threat that US military aid to Egypt could be sharply reduced.

The article listed an impressive set of US grievances. Some were understandable, even if I would tend to defend my country’s position. Others were silly, and I also expected others that did not figure in the writers’ list. For instance, they did not complain about the addiction of many people to conspiracy theories in which the US consistently plays a leading role. I am often appalled by the Egyptian mistrust of the US and by some Egyptian people’s tendency to adopt explanations assuming devilish US behaviour.

There is also a structural problem: US non-military aid to Egypt is too little to matter, and when the US has tried to support human rights NGOs in Egypt, it has been a constant irritant to the Egyptian government. On the other hand, the benefits of the military aid are real, if difficult to see in practice. The US might think that no other country is afraid of the Egyptian military, but I guess Iran would be much more daring if it did not exist. The same thing goes for the Libyan militias and many other troublemakers in the region.

The US might dislike the Egyptian regime, the Egyptian military, or its operational effectiveness. But for now, and for a long while to come, it is the only one in the Middle East, apart of course from the Israeli Tsahal, which is friendly to Washington. We are much closer to the main theatres of military action, and much more reliable, than the Turkey of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We might have problems in our ability to protect some key actors, but the same thing goes for Erdogan.

I am not an insider, so I do not want to address the specifics, even those that look preposterous. I am sure that we need to periodically review the assumptions guiding our foreign policy, and I am sure there are internal debates on this that are ongoing. Our officials, like many others, do not like public self-criticism. But that is another story.

Meanwhile, I think the Americans should also review their own assumptions and ask themselves the key question of whether they are reliable and good allies. I do not want to dwell on specifics. I do not want to list our own set of grievances, from Palestine to Iraq to the severe conditions restricting the use of US aid. Instead, I would like to confine myself to some generalities that might be useful.

I remember reading a book by the UK commentator Sir Lawrence Friedman, who said that the US was both a stabilising force and a destabilising one. Due to its perception of its messianic democratic mission, Washington has problems working with allies that do not fit with its own standards of democracy, and it tries to induce or even force some allies to change their manners. It can easily be harsher on its allies than on its foes.  

One of the world’s best political commentators once told me that the problem was that the Americans had a peculiar relationship to risk and were willing to experiment with it. They thought they could afford it, he said, and failed to see that their allies could not. Worse, they could be oblivious to the grudges that can result from absurd experiments. Good will is not enough to be forgiven, especially when there have been terrible casualties. (I have the invasion of Iraq in mind.) We should also note that the Egyptian establishment has been particularly risk-averse since the disaster of the 1967 War. The two countries’ approaches are radically different.

Different diagnoses also aggravate the situation. Egypt is committed to the region’s stability and thinks that authoritarian states are a lesser evil given the spread of dangerous ideologies and the rise of sectarian tensions. The US is ambivalent about stability. It wants it, but it also has a tendency to think that the kind of stability that prevailed before the Arab Spring was poisonous and fed extremism. In other words, Egypt thinks that extremism causes authoritarianism, while the US thinks the opposite. I think the current state of affairs proves that Egypt is right, at least in the short term.

The way the two countries consider their national interest is also relevant here. The Egyptian establishment tends to consider this as being natural and permanent and a natural consequence of geography, demography, history and identity. Changes are slow and limited. The foreign policy community might know better, but this is the country’s first reflex.

The US sees its national interest differently. First, it is a “construction,” and second the tension between values and interests is never appeased. Third, the definition of the national interest greatly varies and is often the result of a fierce contest. US presidents Obama and Trump think very differently on many issues, including on Iran, Political Islam and the Gulf countries. Countries in the Middle East have some excuse if they fail to adapt to the frequent changes of strategy, analysis and tactics in the US. Their regimes understandably refuse to commit suicide in the name of some US experiment. I have Bahrain in mind.

The late French philosopher Raymond Aron, a staunch pro-American, said somewhere that the US establishment had an amazing ability to adapt morality to its own interests and that the most amazing thing of all was the fact that this bad faith seemed unconscious. It is difficult to be lectured on ethics by someone who mercilessly promotes his own interests. But I do not know how history and memory structure the perceptions of the protagonists here, so I shall skip the issue.

I will end this article with a silly remark. Egypt and the US should stop thinking they know better than each other. I am quite sure that Egypt sometimes defends US interests much more efficiently than Washington does. The opposite is also sometimes true. We should carefully listen to each other if the alliance is to continue to live. Egypt is powerful, its position is strategic, and it can deliver.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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