Old formula rules Sisi-Obama relations

Mohamed Elmenshawy
Thursday 5 Feb 2015

For more than three decades, Egyptian-US relations were governed by a formula drawn out by Mubarak. Despite his departure, neither Washington nor post-revolution Egypt are interested in changing it

During his long years in power, former President Hosni Mubarak was able to impose a special balanced formula in relations between Cairo and Washington. “Mubarak’s formula” prevented strategic relations between the two from being impacted despite temporary seasonal ebbs and flows in bilateral relations. Mubarak’s formula was not the former president’s genius but reflected the genuine concerns and interests of Washington in its ties to Egypt, which do not include or care about democracy or respect by the Cairo regime for human rights or political freedoms.

During his decades in power, Mubarak dealt with many US presidents, starting with Democrat Jimmy Carter who advocated an ethical approach to foreign policy until incumbent pragmatist Barack Obama. He also dealt with Republican President Ronald Reagan, the champion of US hegemony in the world, followed by George Bush Sr and George Bush Jr, and Democrat Bill Clinton between the latter two.

Mubarak’s formula was based on coordination, consultation and cooperation on Middle East issues while leaving a reasonable margin for differences of opinion on rigid issues that do not cost Washington much. This manifested in repeated disputes between Cairo and Washington on the details of the Middle East peace process, which primarily served Egypt’s domestic interests by appearing to oppose US policies. The same was true on the Sudan issue and its division into two states with Washington’s blessing and pressure, despite Egypt’s unequivocal opposition.

Mubarak, however, always knew the regional red lines he could not cross. That is why there were never good relations between Egypt and Iran during the three decades of his rule. Egypt was also hostile to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Another facet of Mubarak’s formula allowed the administration in Washington to continuously protest the Egyptian regime’s record on political freedoms, rights of minorities, women’s rights and human rights issues. A senior Egyptian official who participated in the management of Egyptian-US relations under Mubarak said that bilateral meetings between Egyptian and US counterparts included long discussions of regional and security issues. The Americans would then take up the last 10 minutes to remind their Egyptian counterparts of Washington’s desire to see an end to the state of emergency, international monitors allowed to oversee elections, and respect for human rights.

The maelstrom of rapid developments in Egypt since 25 January 2011 made some believe this was the end of the Mubarak formula in Egyptian-US relations. However, the new reality did not allow this. The nature of tolerated differences between the two capitals now also includes Washington’s hitherto continued rejection of pressure by Cairo to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisataion, and for Washington and Cairo to cooperate in intelligence to combat the group’s activities inside and outside Egypt. Nonetheless, neither capital is interested in changing the Mubarak formula.

The recent phone call between presidents Obama and Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, and before that their meeting in New York, unequivocally confirms their resorting to the Mubarak formula as the model for relations between their two countries.

The media in Cairo celebrated the phone call that was reported in detail, albeit only focusing on Obama’s assertion that his country continues to support Egypt in its efforts to combat terrorism. The Cairo media also praised Obama’s support of El-Sisi’s plan to implement the political roadmap and his efforts to achieve the political, economic and social aspirations of the Egyptian people. The media in Cairo did not forget to report that Obama expressed his condolences to the Egyptian people for the victims who fell in terrorist attacks.

To the contrary, Washington media focused on how Obama expressed serious concern to El-Sisi about political trials, the jailing of journalists, and harassing and arresting political activists. Obama was also concerned about “mass trials of the opposition" and "the condition of civil society."

Neither the media in Cairo nor in Washington are mistaken. Each side focused on their favourite parts and ignored what they did not like. This reflects the nature of Mubarak’s formula, which both Obama and El-Sisi once thought was part of the past.

In an interview with CNN on 23 August 2013, Obama said that “relations will not go back to what they were because of what happened there.” El-Sisi, meanwhile, told The Washington Post in August 2013 that Obama’s administration was ignoring the will of the Egyptian people and not providing enough support amidst threats that could drive the country into the swamp of civil war. El-Sisi said that the US “abandoned the Egyptian people” in crisis and “turned its back on them,” adding that “Egyptians will never forget that.”

In December 2014, Egypt received 10 Apache helicopters that were held back after the army took power in July 2013. Also, the new US ambassador to Cairo, Stephen Beecroft, arrived after the post had remained empty for more than one year. This all indicates that the two sides are content with the Mubarak formula, despite its flaws, at least regarding the interests of the Egyptian state.

The writer is a researcher focused on Egyptian politics.

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