Since relations between Cairo and Washington are built on strong military foundations, based on the formula “aid in return for cooperation,” they seem more like a Catholic marriage, where the US Department of Defense plays a key role in decisions on Egypt by various US administrations, irrespective of who is in charge at the Pentagon.
During the 18-day revolution, the Egypt crisis team in the US administration following minute by minute developments was divided, not only in perspectives but also generationally. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, born in 1943, represented the older team that was more conservative after years of service in the corridors of the US government, and influenced by conservative bureaucratic political traditions. Meanwhile, the younger generation in the group viewed what was happening as a true revolution and called for supporting the revolution’s youth. The older generation proposed procrastination and not abandoning ally Hosni Mubarak.
The presence of a large military delegation led by Major General Sami Anan, Egypt’s former army chief of staff, for several days in Washington at the start of the revolution gave the US administration an opportunity to directly communicate with the Egyptian army and urge its leaders not to resort to violence against protestors under any circumstances.
Obama was relieved after he asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mike Mullen, on 28 January to go to Andrews Airbase and ask Anan one question: Will the Egyptian army use force against protestors? Anan was unequivocal: “The army will never use force against the people. Our mission is to protect protestors, not attack them.”
Gates then made near-daily phone calls to his Egyptian counterpart Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi starting the fifth day of the revolution. Three weeks after Mubarak stepped down, Gates was in Cairo to promote strong military bonds between the two countries in the post-Mubarak phase.
Leon Panetta then came to the helm at the Pentagon and his first visit to Egypt came three weeks after Mohamed Morsi became president, which demonstrates the US’s interest in Egyptian affairs. Panetta met with Morsi and Tantawi, congratulated Egyptians for their transition to democracy, and conveyed several messages to Egypt’s political leadership. The two meetings also discussed ways of reaching peace with Israel, and concerns over security in Sinai.
In a news conference in Cairo, Panetta said: “Tantawi’s leadership of the previous phase came at a critical point. There were free, peaceful and fair elections. I congratulated him and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for their role in this process.”
Panetta was asked about possible changes in US military cooperation with Egypt in the coming phase, especially in the presence of an Islamist president, and the extent which Washington wanted to maintain security and border with Israel. He responded: “I believe it is clear post-revolution Egypt is committed to forming a democratic government that represents all interests in Egypt. That’s why I am certain democracy here will be well represented.”
Therefore, he added, “military relations will continue because Egypt’s security is important for stability in the region during this transitional phase, and we have a history of working together in cooperation with Egyptian military leaders. We will continue to give them assistance to help them in their work.”
Then came Chuck Hagel, who developed close ties with Minister of Defence General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi since his appointment in August 2012, especially after their meeting in Cairo. Hagel was in near-daily contact with El-Sisi after Morsi was pushed Morsi out, making Hagel the vital communication link with Egypt’s new rulers during this critical phase in relations between the two countries.
Hagel even attempted to mediate between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, and there was an uninterrupted open channel between Hagel and El-Sisi. Hagel called El-Sisi 17 times before sit-ins were dispersed on 14 August 2013, and almost as many times between dispersing the sit-ins and presidential elections in May 2014 — basically, once every six days.
Nonetheless, the impact of Hagel’s exit will be limited in terms of relations between Washington and Cairo. According to the US Constitution, the US president has more powers than any other official or Congress regarding foreign affairs. The Middle East issue and aid to Egypt are no exception.
During his presidential campaign, El-Sisi described ties with the US as a stable and permanent strategic relationship. He also said he understood Washington’s logic behind freezing military aid after the events of 3 July, which means Cairo did not revise its relations with Washington. Although Obama asserted his country’s relationship with Egypt will not revert to what it was before, and asked his administration to propose new formulae for relations between the two countries, today’s map of the Middle East illustrates that Egypt’s importance does not allow Washington to revise relations. The delivery of Apache helicopters to Egypt confirms a return to traditional military relations between the two states.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is a researcher focusing on Egyptian politics.