Secretary Hillary Clinton made the argument in early February “that the right path was to pressure Mubarak for change ... but not to pull the rug from beneath him.” She tried to balance strategic security interests in the one hand and soft human rights and democratization issues on the other.
“We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people … but our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” she said on January 25, 2011 in a statement that would haunt her later. Two days later, Vice President Biden said that “Mubarak was no dictator."
The US was keen not to alienate Mubarak until February 1, 2011.
There were two camps in the White House: one called for saying very little publicly in the hope that Mubarak would carry the day, thus maintaining the basic formula of the relationship between the two countries. On the other side, there were those who cared more about Obama’s legacy and role in history and advocated a clear statement, especially after the failed attempt by Mubarak supporters to dismantle the main protest in Tahrir Square on 2nd February, which led to the deaths and injuries of many protestors. The second camp invoked principles, legacy and long-term strategic gains, but not without a small measure of risk. It took one week, which was “maybe too slow for events on the ground but very fast for US foreign policy making” to settle this policy feud. This is obviously similar to the reported ongoing rift between the National Security Council and the State Department, where Secretary John Kerry is presented as the conciliatory face of the US with the new regime in Cairo, while the White House is sticking to an alleged moral high ground. This sounds more like Washington, D.C. politics where the president and his party are being protected from what could be construed by political rivals as selling out on American values. Of course if he took a more principled position on Cairo, he would have been accused by his detractors of being too idealist and ignorant about the realities of the tough Middle East.
E-mail diplomacy: do not shoot at the demonstrators
But back to the fateful days of early February 2011, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, a few senior members of Congress and Secretary of Defense spoke with Egyptian Defense Minister General Hussain Tantawi and Chief of Staff General Samy Annan to stress the importance of not using violence against peaceful demonstrators. “Tantawi had good reasons to take the position he took: field commanders might not obey orders to shoot and this could create a rift in the army… and they were against the succession plan too [to have Gamal Mubarak succeed his father as president],” according to a senior Middle East Policy analyst in the US government.
After February 2nd, Egyptian military officers started to receive e-mails from American counterparts they had trained with in the US “cautioning them against firing on the protestors.” “You would almost hear them making the calculations in their heads,” according to one senior official quoted by David Sanger in his book. “Faced with a stark choice, the Egyptian military heeded the warning.”
The developments in Cairo between 2nd and 10th of February and the signals that Washington kept sending convinced the Egyptian military that it “would have Washington’s backing if it moved against Mubarak.” The “top officers seemed to have come to the same conclusion that South Korea’s did in the 1980s and Indonesia’s did in the 1990s: the country’s leader had changed from an asset to a liability,” but it was the clear US messages at one stage that tipped the balance. These messages were largely motivated by the fear that the army itself might splinter and that the revolutionary demands might escalate even further, by which time it could become impossible to save any part of the regime, including the army, without bloody confrontations.
Saving the Egyptian regime through decapitation
The US strategic interests and values were both better served by saving the regime after decapitating it. Egyptian generals informed American officials that everything was set up for Mubarak’s departure on 10th February. When the octogenarian Mubarak demurred that evening, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates called his Egyptian counterpart Tantawi to tell him that Mubarak had to go, which took place few hours later. The US stood ready “to mentor them and help the Egyptian army” through the transition, according to Ghattas.
Since the Egyptian-Israeli 1979 peace treaty, the Egyptian military has been seen in Washington as a US ally. It preserved the peace with Israel and its military equipment and systems were becoming sourced from the US, thus interoperable with American equipment in annual joint military exercises and joint deployments such as the 1991 Gulf War. The army itself had a lot to lose if the regime fully disintegrated. The army controlled “resorts, gas stations, pharmaceutical facilities, and fish farms, and received a steady $1.3 billion annual military aid package from the U.S. In the summer of 2013 when it offered to pay back debts for those unable to make payments. The urban legend that the Egyptian army runs “four-fifths of all industrial concerns and accounts of upward of 30 percent of the economy,” remains largely unfounded. The aid package itself is miniscule compared to Egypt’s GDP, but it is not the money as much as the technical cooperation, joint exercises and systems interoperability that had brought the two militaries so close to each other.
Reports in Egyptian media about a possible switch of focus from the US to Russia ignore the depth and complexity of this relationship and how much work it would take to transform it, let alone just drop it. Recent reports about a deal worth $2 billion under which Russia would sell arms to Egypt with Saudi funding are still unconfirmed and defy the geopolitical lineup in the region, where Moscow is aligned with Riyadh’s arch enemies in Tehran.
US-Egyptian strategic relations go beyond military aid
The Egyptian regime has been an important ally in the region to the US government. The US annual military aid package, which stood at 2.8% of government revenue in 2011
, was never explicitly used as a pressure tool. Egypt grants priority crossing in the Suez Canal to the US military ships, over-flight rights in the Egyptian air space and helped the political pacification of the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. In other words, Cairo helped with force protection and facilitation for the projection of American military power. Over the last 10 years “we had 100,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. You have to get people and supplies in and out of the region. The priority arrangement to cross the Suez Canal and the over-flight rights, both have been very important. Think also of how central these two arrangements are if you had to hit Iran,” said a former senior administration official.
The Egyptian military had gone through a major shift over the last 40 years from one “that used only Soviet arms and doctrine to one which relies on American arms and doctrine… It is very good to have Egypt with you but definitely important not to have her against you … nor is it useful to have Egypt project power on its own,” as a former State Department official opined to me.
For the Pentagon, investing in the Egyptian military and ensuring it survives this stormy political transition intact was paramount. “The Pentagon and the US military will continue to support the Egyptian army now that they have succeeded in its transformation and for the first time you have US-trained military leadership. Hundreds of Egyptian officers dream of coming to the US for a few weeks for training or to accompany an arms shipment back,” said a Middle Eastern journalist in Washington.
Who shoulders the bill of the transition in Egypt?
Unlike Israel and oil-producing countries in the Middle East, the non-military economic relations with Egypt was more often than not a burden to the US taxpayer. The US was worried that if Mubarak fell down, reform and transition would require billions of dollars it could not afford under the recessionary economic conditions and Republican pressures for budget cuts for domestic programs. Riyadh would have to be asked in due course to provide the funds for Egypt, and it did after the Muslim Brotherhood fell in July this year. Over the last three months, it loaned Egypt US$4 billion and gave it another billion as a grant. Qatar, another close US ally in the Gulf, had opened the tap earlier when the MB ruled in Cairo and provided the Egyptian government with $8 billion in loans. Other US allies such as Kuwait and UAE are also supporting Egypt now.
*Khaled Mansour is an Egyptian writer who worked for over 20 years in the USA, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa both as a journalist and as a United Nations official. He now lives and works in Cairo.