Despite recent turbulence in formal ties between Egypt and the US, those at Ittihadiya Palace (the headquarters of the presidency in Cairo) and the administration at the White House (the headquarters of the US presidency in Washington) have always shared a constant context of positive interaction in general between the two sides. This positive dynamic was never influenced by whether Egypt’s actual ruler was inside or outside the walls of the palace.
Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi both used the palace as their seat of power, but the palace was twice ruled from outside these walls. First, at the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chaired by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi; the second time is today under the rule of General Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi.
Neither did this positive interaction change during the rotation of power between Democrats and Republicans in the White House every four or eight years.
Some thought intervention by the Egyptian army and Morsi’s ouster would undermine the bond between Ittihadiya and the White House. US President Barack Obama’s orders to overhaul his country’s ties with Egypt came as a surprise to many. Obama told CNN: “We have to be careful on Egypt so we do not appear to aid action that contradicts our values.” He added that Washington would try to support restoring the democratic process and stability in Egypt, although he admitted relations were no longer the same because of what happened.
Before this, El-Sissi surprised many during an interview with the Washington Post in which he accused Obama of ignoring the will of the Egyptian people, and not providing enough support amid threats of the country slipping into civil war. The general added that the US “left the Egyptians” alone during the crisis, and “turned [its] back on Egyptians. And they will not forget that.” He added: “Now will [the US] continue turning [its back] on Egyptians?”
Nonetheless, these unprecedented statements by leaders in both capitals did not impact the bond between Ittihadiya Palace and the White House. The statements could be seen as a significant transformation in the outlook of the Egyptian military on the future of relations with Washington – especially since these statements made a huge splash in US decision-making circles which had always viewed the army as its closest ally in Egypt.
The fact that El-Sissi studied at the United States Army War College further fuelled the controversy surrounding his statements, which some viewed as unjustified escalation. But it appears escalation did not go further than mere fiery statements for domestic consumption.
Washington now realises the future of its ties with Egypt has changed forever. US military aid costing $1.3 billion annually, which adds up to more than $75 billion over the past decades, is no longer of much value. They have also lost their impact on Egyptian decision makers. Professor Mark Lynch at George Washington University noted that “after more than 500 people were killed, the Egyptian army did exactly what the US administration asked it not to do. How can we now claim that aid gives us some influence in Egypt?”
Until today, the Obama administration has not described Morsi’s ouster at the hands of the army as a military coup. To describe it as such would require Washington to stop all aid to Egypt except humanitarian aid. At the same time, the US has not recognised events on 30 June and 3 July as a popular revolution. Clearly, Washington is being dichotomous on the Egyptian issue.
Obama decided to cancel Bright Star war games scheduled next month on Egyptian territories between the Egyptian and US armies, and took punitive steps, including stopping a shipment of four F-16 jet fighters and another of 12 new Apache AH-64s – scheduled for this month. On the other hand, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel is speaking with his Egyptian counterpart on a near daily basis, and US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted the Egyptian army intervened based on the demand of millions of Egyptians “to protect democracy.”
US-Egyptian relations are governed by a number of interests, calculations and equilibrium, and therefore Washington is being pragmatic about the future government of Egypt. Naturally, Washington is agog with debates about the future of Egypt’s transitional phase; it is no secret that Egyptian-US relations were, and continue to be, very special since they were restored after the October War. Because of this significance, Washington cannot risk focusing ties on a single figure or one camp against another.
Obama’s administration advised Mubarak to embrace democratic transformation, but he ignored the Americans until the people of Egypt revolted and overthrew his tyrannical regime. Obama advised Morsi to adopt a democracy that incorporates all Egyptians, but he too ignored US advice until the army overturned his rule. The same thing is happening today with the Egyptian army; the Obama administration is urging them to follow a democratic path, release Muslim Brotherhood leaders and Morsi, but the army continues to ignore US requests.
Washington knows well it cannot risk its relationship with whomever is in power in Cairo, for the simple reason that US rulers know their goals in these ties with Egypt. The same can’t be said about the rulers in Cairo, who – today and in the past – do not know the purpose of special relations with Washington.