This absence of a US ambassador in Cairo for the last eight months could be for several reasons. First, it could be strong evidence of tension between the two countries and hesitation by the US administration on what it should do about developments in Egypt. Second, it could confirm the reliance on defence relations as the basis of bilateral relations; there have been more than 30 phone calls between US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his former counterpart Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, or one call every six days.
This is a natural development of the army dominating the political scene in Egypt and explains why traditional diplomatic channels are being ignored in favour of direct military channels. Third, it could be Washington’s desire not to be directly present inside Egypt, especially after the bad experience of Ambassador Anne Patterson that ended with her returning home in August to become US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
In general, an ambassador's job entails representing their country, presenting their country’s viewpoint on pertinent issues in the host country, participation in decision making back home by giving opinions or sending reports or making suggestions. A nomination to serve in the Cairo embassy was once a prize post for diplomats focused on Middle East affairs, and the same is true for the post of ambassador, which is considered one of the top posts in the US State Department. There was always fierce competition between senior US diplomats to win this appointment.
At the same time, the post of “US ambassador in Cairo” had a downside in terms of the inflated role and special importance given the embassy when dealing with Egyptian elite that greatly exaggerates the size, power and influence of the US role, irrespective of this elite’s ideological and cultural background.
“Not having a US ambassador in Cairo for the past seven months, and having the main voice on Egypt policy come instead from Washington, has lowered the US profile inside Egypt somewhat, which has probably helped to calm the waters a bit after the vitriolic media campaign over the summer against Ambassador Patterson,” according to Amy Hawthorne, an American expert on Egyptian affairs at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
After the tenure of former Ambassador to Cairo Margaret Scobey ended in June 2011, Patterson was appointed ambassador less than one month after Scobey’s departure. Although during that period Egypt witnessed great instability, consecutive and transitional governments under the interim leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Obama administration did not hesitate in naming the new ambassador. Washington understood the importance of occupying this post during this difficult period in Egypt’s history.
Patterson was heavily criticised last summer before and after protests following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. Some Egyptian newspapers printed headlines describing her as “Ambassador from Hell” and “The US High Commissioner to Egypt” along with “Shameless Patterson” and “White Beetle Patterson” and dozens of other inappropriate headlines. Thus, some people believe that senior US diplomats are hesitant to serve in Cairo right now.
Once Patterson left Cairo, Washington picked Ambassador David Satterfield to serve temporarily as charge d’affaires for some months. Satterfield, who is on good terms with the Egyptian army, took a leave of absence from his position as director general of the Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai Peninsula. After his term ended in January, Marc Sievers has served as charge d’affaires in Cairo.
There is a widespread rumour in Washington that interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy informed US Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting in Cairo on 3 November that the interim government in Egypt would not officially object to Washington’s nomination of Robert Ford as US ambassador to Cairo. However, Fahmy cautioned him about such a choice because Ford would feel isolated in Cairo because no one would deal with him.
Cairo’s advice is an indirect objection to Ford’s appointment. But it is no clear why Egypt objects to Ford except that some Egyptian circles accuse him of contributing to inciting violence in Syria by supporting the opposition against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Ford is also agreeable to the Islamists, which is why the incumbent government is worried.
Hawthorne believes the Obama administration’s decision not to nominate Ford for the post, after the Egyptian leadership rejected the idea, should also be seen in the context of the US wanting to avoid stirring up another anti-US backlash in Egypt. “But not having high-level US representation in Egypt also compounds the sense of drift, uncertainty, and indeed passivity in US policy towards Egypt,” she said. “This is becoming a serious problem not just with regard to Egypt, whose stability and security continue to be in question, but also for broader US strategy in the Middle East.”
US positions since 3 July have angered both sides of the dispute in Egypt. It neither officially described what happened that day as a military coup, nor as a popular revolution. Continued muddling by the US administration continues to raise many questions about the reasons why the Obama administration wishes to remain neutral between the two sides, which has angered both camps.
It is likely the Obama administration does not believe the presence or absence of an ambassador would impact Washington’s strategic interests, and thus the issue of an ambassador is a tactical rather than strategic move by Washington — as long as there are open communication channels between the military in both countries. We will never completely understand the absence of a US ambassador until after elections in Egypt and a clearer political picture, as well as assessments of the US’s response to developments in Egypt, emerges.