The US-Egyptian relations have been experiencing serious fluctuations ever since the outbreak of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011. Bilateral relations have even reached their lowest point with the decision of the Obama administration to suspend substantial military aid (1), military training, and other economic aid funds to the Egyptian government in October 2013, pending what US officials called a credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections. This decision is indeed unprecedented in US-Egyptians relations ever since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979. Not even in moments of confrontation, such as the Achille Lauro incident in the 1980s, has the United States suspended its military assistance to the Egyptian government. Such aid has not been merely regarded by various US administration as essential for maintaining the Egyptian-Israeli peace, but also crucial for the United States itself in maintaining a close political and strategic partnership with a pivotal Middle East country; having a broader influence in Middle East politics; and enjoying special privileges that could guarantee its access to the region. These include expediting US air force overflights in Egyptian airspace; accelerating the passage of US naval vessels and battle groups that transit the Suez Canal; and using Egyptian airfields and port facilities for en-route support and maintenance.
However, the Obama administration has been keen to discuss this suspension of aid decision with its Egyptian counterparts, as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did in a 40-minute telephone call with the then Egypt’s Defense Minister, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Also, the United States continues to supply funds that advance “vital security objectives” in Egypt. These include counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, border security, peace with Israel, security in the Sinai Peninsula, military training, spare parts for US-manufactured military equipment, and some economic assistance funds directed to non-governmental organization.
Therefore, the US is largely viewed as opting for a middle road, aimed at satisfying both the new regime in Egypt, and various voices within the Congress and prominent US think tanks, which have been pushing for a firm US stance against what they perceived as a mere coup in Egypt in July 2013. Nonetheless, the Egyptian government condemned the US decision, as the Foreign Ministry expressed doubts about US readiness to provide stable strategic support to the ongoing Egyptian efforts to stabilize the country, impose order, and fight terrorism. Its spokesman, Badr Abdul Atty has noted that "Egypt will take domestic decisions independently and without external influences, and it will work towards securing its vital needs [...] namely those related to its national security” (2). In February 2014, Egypt signed $2 billion arms deal with Russia, which is mainly funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the following April, Egypt and Russia signed another deal worth $3 billion, according to which Egypt should receive 24 of Russia’s advanced Mikoyan MiG-35 fighter jets, along with military and strategic advisers and training for the Egyptian Air Force.
While these arms deals are largely regarded as major setbacks to US policy and diplomacy in Egypt and the Middle East at large, they do not mean that Egypt is (or could) simply replacing the United States with Russia. Egypt is living a moment of a very deep perception of threat to its national security and integrity, and it is stressing its determination in forging a relatively independent foreign policy, by diversifying as much as it can its arms imports. In the same vein, and in a sign of a revived sense of Arab solidarity out of shared perceptions of common threats, Egypt and the UAE conducted in March 2014 joint military exercises, codenamed “Zayed-1”. Being the first of its kind in terms of number and size of units involved, these joint exercises are aimed at enhancing the interoperability of Arab armies. In addition, these manoeuvres do further stress the sense of fear and deep state of mistrust that Egypt and key Gulf countries currently experience about the United States role in the region.
As a matter of fact, understanding the reasons behind this increased frustration towards the United States role in Egypt is necessary to grasp the current US-Egyptian discord and its breadth. Three elements in specific are here mentioned:
First, Egyptian officials and the majority of the Egyptian people do increasingly view the United States as determined to weaken Arab armies (especially after the dismantling and fragmentation of both the Iraqi and Syrian armies). In the case of Egypt, this is perceived to be achieved by leading a propaganda for a balanced civil-military relations as a normative feature of established democracies. However, the one-year presidency under the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt demonstrated that the country lacks the necessary preconditions that normally exist in established democracies, which allow for a “safe” subordination of the military institution to a civilian leadership, i.e. without disastrous consequences on these countries’ national security. So, when many US officials insist on reducing what happened in Egypt in June and July 2013 to a mere coup – even if the Obama Administration itself avoided to officially adopt that terminology – they ignore the fact that if it was not for the military intervention, Egypt may have risked to be pitched in civil war resembling the case of Syria rather than survive a smooth experience of a nascent democracy. Out of this perception the Egyptians look at the Americans with much mistrust when they see that their efforts to restore order and security are neither supported nor receive the expected understanding.
Second, the role of the United States in seeking an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not completely irrelevant to the current friction in US-Egyptian relations. There is also a growing conviction in several Egyptian circles that the United States and Israel are attempting to establish the “alternative homeland” for the Gazans in the quasi-empty Egyptian peninsula of Sinai. Egyptians commonly rationalize the failure of US Secretary of State John Kerry's attempt to make a peace deal between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government according to this logic, as well as the decision of the Israeli government to halt its peace talks with the PA, immediately after the latter had announced its reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
Third, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the igniting situation in Libya, and the troublesome Sudan are all cases that Egypt looks at as learned lessons, contributing only to fueling its escalating anxiety about the need to prioritize the country’s national security, political integrity and social cohesion above any other consideration.
Understanding and dealing with these elements is a must for the re-consolidation of the US-Egyptian relations under any political order to come in Egypt. Deep pillars have been holding the US-Egyptian bond for decades. As stated by Nabil Fahmy, the Foreign Minister, during an official visit to the United States last April, Egypt, despite all its fears and suspicions, still regards its relationship with the United States as a “legal marriage” rather than a “fling”.