Long before the Mubarak regime fell, the word that most aptly described the modern US-Egyptian bilateral relationship was “confused”. Forged during Camp David, strengthened during the first Gulf War, the relationship has long been based on shared interests. Cairo served as a bulwark in America’s regional policy, which in itself was premised on regional stability and containment of radical forces (namely Iraq, Iran and a hodge-podge of extremist groups). Washington, in turn, provided economic support vital to buttress the weak Egyptian economy, which was in peril in the late Sadat and early Mubarak era. The US also provided Egypt with the military hardware necessary to maintain the strength of the Egyptian military. The relationship eliminated the possibility of further Egyptian involvement in the endless Arab-Israel conflict, and served as a foundation for a comprehensive peace process.
During the past 30-plus years, other initiatives were undertaken to expand the relationship. Most notably was an effort launched by the Clinton administration to expand US-Egyptian trade and commerce. Under the banner of the Gore-Mubarak Initiative, formally the US-Egyptian Partnership for Economic Growth and Development, cooperation failed to reach the goal of a free trade agreement, but did have some achievements, such as the Qualified Industrial Zone protocol that expanded Egyptian textile exports. Some development efforts, particularly in infrastructure and healthcare, have been extremely beneficial. Attempts to build Egyptian civil society capacity have proven far more controversial.
Yet by the advent of the George W Bush administration, and in the haze of 9/11, the relationship veered terribly off course. Primarily this was due to a profound misreading by both Cairo and Washington of the political motivations and interests of the other, and a failure to adjust to new realities. Moreover, the relationship was maintained primarily in a top-down fashion based on the words and deeds of only a handful of leaders on both sides. This created a situation in which new, unexpected events were viewed through a limited prism, creating a gradual drift from reality.
Contrary to conspiracy theorists, and despite the Bush administration’s professed plans for regional democratisation, the US never had a grand strategy to topple Hosni Mubarak. The 25 January uprising came as a great, and not totally welcomed, surprise. This explains why the Obama administration struggled so mightily to respond to a new, confusing Egyptian political order.
By circumstance, President Obama has routinely put his finger in the air to see how the prevailing winds blow in Cairo. More often than not, it has been the press informing the administration about developments on the ground, rather than the other way around. And in the age of instantaneous media, much of the news has been inaccurate or painted a biased picture.
There is no ideologically consistent US policy about regime change, nor a clear understanding in Washington as to what the US wants in the region today. Some say democracy is the objective, and note the quick US embrace, even with reservations, of Islamist-led governments. Others claim US policy remains unchanged and that the US will work with all governments that serve its interests regardless of their orientation and form of government.
Confusion is understandable because the US seems uncertain about what its regional national security interests truely are, whether democracy promotion is amenable to protecting those interests (or is one of those interests); what situations justify military intervention; the best use of foreign assistance; or when is it appropriate to opine about another nation’s internal affairs.
Given the lack of clarity on the ground and uncertainty as to the objectives of new Egyptian power brokers, perhaps it is better Obama has refrained from making hasty, tough, lasting decisions. He has instead opted for a series of bite-sized initiatives: minimal assistance here, investment there. But the fact remains there is no blueprint for US-Egyptian relations.
Egypt has experienced a profound change, with new political calculations reshaping its policies at home and abroad. At this point, it is unclear where Egypt is headed or how it will look next year. Given all the new variables at play, the picture of the new Egypt will remain blurry for some time to come. Under President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has not made decisions about its domestic affairs, let alone foreign policy.
Washington today has few accurate tea leafs to read. Cairo welcomes continued American military aid, and may wish for investment and a large condition-free cash infusion to provide a much-needed economic band-aid. But it should not be surprised at American hesitation, since Washington simply does not know what, or who, it is dealing with.
To be certain, President Obama, even after his recent re-election, is not in a position to provide Egypt with a new, large-scale assistance package. Efforts to provide even modest aid have met with strong opposition in Congress. Most recently, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida), chairman of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a blunt letter to the administration opposing plans to provide $450 million to Egypt. Perhaps Ros-Lehtinen, a fierce partisan and long-time critic of Cairo, can be dismissed, but not so her colleague Representative Kay Granger (Republican-Texas), a long-time supporter of US-Egyptian military cooperation, who has used her post on a key committee to block the same aid package.
Moreover, the realities of the US budget make even existing foreign assistance programmes difficult to defend, let alone expand. In short, Obama will be hard-pressed to help Cairo even if he is confident of Egypt’s new government.
On the Egyptian side, perhaps economic problems and related political challenges in Cairo were underestimated by the Muslim Brotherhood. President Morsi and his colleagues have been criticised for failing to implement new initiatives or even to set out a strategy for fixing most immediate needs. But the truth, as they have learned, is that no decision is cost-free, and there will be short-term losers and a political price to pay no matter what decisions are eventually made. Washington must recognise this, and understand that no matter how powerful the new government in Cairo may appear, that the political climate remains highly volatile.
Another truth often overlooked is that many of the mixed messages emerging from Cairo on a range of issues are largely the result of inexperience. President Morsi is a new leader facing tremendous challenges with many critics. The Muslim Brotherhood, and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party, have never governed. They are learning that life in the opposition and governing are two very different animals.
The September demonstration at the US Embassy should offer lessons for both sides. Clearly, the Egyptian government mismanaged the situation and its hesitation in balancing its professed support of free assembly and speech and the obvious need to protect foreign embassies was most likely due to inexperience — a fact Washington should recognise. At the same time, the Egyptian government must understand the enormous damage done to its international image, which greatly undermines its efforts to attract business and secure economic support.
So, where to go from here? Rather than talk past each other, the wiser course would be to reset relations along the parameters of this apparent confusion coupled with existing links and known elements, such as a mutual interest in regional stability, an active even if slow moving peace process, and a well-established military-to-military partnership.
In short, a modest proposal would be to use the next meeting of presidents Obama and Morsi to agree to get to know each other, and to do so by proposing a new Obama-Morsi initiative. This virtual platform can outline a strategy for both sides to talk on a regular basis about a number of items, in addition to security and peace: trade, investment, cultural dialogue, education and development, to name just a few. This will allow both parties to have a deliverable — a new forum — without high political or economic cost.
It creates a platform for both sides to get to know the other without media interpretation, and builds confidence so that any new packages on aid, trade or diplomacy can be defended and promoted with greater ease in Washington and Cairo alike, using identical language, even if speaking to different constituencies. It must also be a bilateral discussion, not one based on Egyptian-Israeli relations, or US concerns over Iran and Syria.
The US has long participated in a wide range of strategic dialogues, including with Egypt, but the proposed initiative must be owned by the leaders. Continuing to stay the course with the Obama administration attempting to “help” Egypt without assuaging sceptics in Congress and the media, or understanding the Morsi administration’s political constraints, is destined to lead to further strain on the relationship.
Neither side can afford to operate on the basis of false assumptions.
The writer is an expert and consultant on Middle East policy and US foreign policy.