If we take the July Revolution of 1952 as our starting point in analysing the relationship between Egyptian presidents and their American counterparts, we can argue that the personal dimension in their interactions from 1952 till today has played a role in managing Egyptian-American relations. However, it has never been a determining factor save in two instances with far-reaching consequences for Egypt and its standing and role in the Middle East and the Arab world at large.
The idea to write a brief history of these relations came to mind when going over Egyptian reactions to the elections victory of President-elect Joe Biden. Most Egyptians, particularly on social media, expressed disappointment that the incumbent, President Donald Trump, had not been re-elected for a second term on the grounds that he had developed “good personal rapport” with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
Some Egyptians went as far as claiming — wrongly — that President Trump had given the green light for Egypt to launch an attack on the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Others believe that President Trump has been a great friend to Egypt and that his departure from the White House would be detrimental to Egyptian interests.
Such emotional feelings run counter to established facts. Egyptian-American relations have been based on mutual interests related mainly to peace and security in the Middle East and strong relations between the military on both sides. Some political scientists believe that close cooperation between the Egyptian and the American military is the cornerstone of bilateral relations between the two countries. I would add that Egypt’s commitment to the Peace Treaty with Israel, signed in Washington DC on 26 March 1979, is probably the bedrock of their “strategic partnership”. Accordingly, good or lukewarm relations — on the personal level — between sitting Egyptian and American presidents play a minor role in the conduct and management of these relations.
From 1952 to 2020 there have been six Egyptian heads of state and 12 American presidents. Prior to the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the only period when personal relations on the presidential level had been more or less friendly and cordial was from 1960 to 1963 between late presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and John F Kennedy. The two leaders had worked for rapprochement between Cairo and Washington, but the assassination of president Kennedy brought an end to such efforts.
What followed is perhaps the saddest chapter in Egyptian-American relations, whether in state-to-state relations or personal relations, between Nasser and Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson. In his presidency, the United States had given the green light for the Israelis to launch an all-out attack on Egyptian forces in Sinai in June 1967. It was a period that saw the great influence of the Israelis on decision-making in Washington. The two countries wanted to get rid of Nasser and turn the Middle East into a strategic preserve for the Israelis. Decoupled from strategic and political considerations, this was an example of how personal loathing could have a disastrous impact on political decisions. President Johnson hated Nasser personally.
The other example is a complete break with this sad chapter in relations between Egypt and the United States. I am referring to the Sadat-Carter connection; an example of how personality could facilitate difficult decisions based on mutual trust. In this instance, the impact was far-reaching and contributed to reshaping the Middle East.
Relations between Anwar Al-Sadat and former president Jimmy Carter were somewhere between excellent and very good. Personal trust was abundant and Sadat believed every word that Carter said, even if prevailing circumstances in the Arab world at the time of negotiating the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel did not warrant it. Carter had promised Sadat at Camp David in September 1978, and even after the signing of the treaty, that the United States would bring in the Jordanians and the Palestinians to the negotiating table to discuss self-government arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza.
Sadat had taken Carter at his word at his peril, as later developments proved. For neither the former US president could convince the late King Hussein of Jordan to accept the idea of negotiations, nor to join Egypt in following the road of peace at the time. This situation led the Arabs to believe that what happened in Washington in March 1979 was nothing but a betrayal of Arab causes on a grand scale.
The fault of the late Egyptian president was that he had believed that Carter’s promises were American promises. He soon discovered the truth when Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House in November 1980. Sadat had paid his first and last visit to the White House when president Reagan occupied the Oval Office in August 1981. At the time, all Arab countries had boycotted Egypt save three countries — Oman, Somalia and Djibouti — and the Arab League headquarters was moved to Tunisia. Egypt’s membership in the then Organisation of the Islamic Conference had been suspended.
So, Sadat arrived in Washington in August 1981 with a proposal to the newly-elected American president hoping that the United States would adopt it and thus help in re-establishing the Arab credentials of Egypt. The proposal was mutual and simultaneous recognition between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of Yasser Arafat and Israel. However, the Reagan administration did not buy it, to the great disappointment of the late Egyptian president. He also realised then that his personal charm in Washington had faded away and that his warm personal relations with Carter was not to be replicated with the leader of the conservative revolution in the United States.
Ironically, six years later, the same Reagan administration accepted to enter into a dialogue with the PLO. Regrettably, Sadat was no longer Egypt’s president.
Late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years from 1981 to 2011, learned the two lessons of president Nasser and president Sadat in how to approach American presidents. He dealt with five American presidents: two Democrats (presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and three Republican presidents (presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, and George Bush Jr).
I would argue that he did his best to keep a safe personal distance from all five. I would add that he was a realist in dealing with them. He was more successful with Bush Sr and Clinton. With the former, the high point was the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, and with the latter, the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO, and the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty in October 1994. In the two instances, he did not let personal feelings play a role in managing Egyptian-American relations.
History has recorded that he was pressured to leave office when an American president, Obama, asked publicly for his removal from power in February 2011. The United States should not have meddled in Egyptian domestic politics so flagrantly.
But overall, in the last 70 years in Egyptian-American relations, mutual strategic interests, and not presidential connections, have been the major determinants in promoting these relations. Time will tell if this will remain the case now.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly