President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s meeting during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York last week was the first between US President Barack Obama and an Egyptian president since a meeting with former President Hosni Mubarak in 2010. After Mubarak stepped down, a series of four people came to the helm in Egypt: Field Marshall Hussein Abdel-Fattah Tantawi, former defence minister and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; elected president Mohamed Morsi and interim President Adly Mansour. The American President did not meet with a single one of these leaders.
For two of these former presidents, this is understandable, as they were interim leaders. However, former president Morsi was not. Many are wondering why Obama did not meet with Morsi in New York during the UN General Assembly two years ago if he chose to sit-down with El-Sisi this year. Obama refused a meeting with Morsi even in the face of attempts by the former Egyptian president to arrange such such an encounter. Morsi’s additional repeated attempts to meet with his American counterpart also failed. First the presidency issued a statement that Morsi would go to Washington to meet with Obama after his New York stop in September 2012, then it said Morsi would vist Washington in December 2012 and after that Morsi told CNN he was set to meet with Obama before the end of March 2013. The fact that none of these meetings took place gives the impression that Obama’s administration did not welcome the Egyptian president in Washington.
Despite US praise for Morsi’s role in ending the assault on Gaza in November 2012, this approval quickly evaporated after Morsi’s constitutional decree and the ensuing clashes at El-Itihadiya Palace.
The most important event in bilateral relations between the two countries was a historic meeting on 4 December 2012, when Obama met with Essam El-Haddad, presidential adviser for foreign relations. It was a surprise that the Egyptian embassy in Washington, uncharacteristically, issued and distributed a statement to Egyptian journalists highlighting the Haddad-Obama encounter. Even more surprising is that the White House, uncharacteristically, did not issue a statement about the meeting summarising what the two men discussed.
Back in Egypt, there were myths about a special relationship between the US administration and the Muslim Brotherhood. These delusions spoke of secret understandings between Obama and Morsi’s administrations and regarding a new map of the Middle East in which Egypt would serve the interests of the US. However, these hallucinations ignored the fact that the rise of political Islam and successes of Islamist forces in all the free elections they participated in, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, was the choice of the people in this region. The perpetrators of these fantasies have not said a word about Washington’s acceptance of the new reality post-Muslim Brotherhood; nor have they acknowledged US indifference toward thousands of Brotherhood detainees, including the group’s senior leaders and former president Morsi, or the current regime’s decision to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
Some people mistakenly believed Obama would not meet El-Sisi in the last two years of his second term, relying on statements by Obama after the dispersal of sit-ins at Rabaa and Al-Nahda squares, the deaths of hundreds of Morsi supporters during demonstrations, and his directive to overhaul his country’s relations with Egypt. Obama’s statement to CNN on 23 August 2013, also supported to these mistaken beliefs, as he said that “relations will not return to where they were because of what happened.”
Previously, the US president had cancelled the Bright Star war games that were scheduled before the end of 2013 in Egypt between the US and Egyptian armies. Following this decision, he suspended all military assistance on 9 October 2013, a freeze that continues to be in place until today.
For his part, El-Sisi did not risk a strong reaction to the US position. During his presidential campaign, he described relations with Washington as strategic, stable and consistent. He also said he understood the American’s logic for suspending military aid after the events of 3 July 2013.
Across the ocean, Washington realised that the new regime in Cairo does not want to change the format that characterised the relationship between Washington and Mubarak’s regime, and with the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the strategic significance of Egypt’s stability, it seems that this is exactly what US-Egypt relations will return to.
After that, ISIL) emerged and the recent Gaza crisis happened, which confirmed the importance of Egypt’s role in recurring regional issues in the Middle East. This made a meeting between Obama and El-Sisi need by default. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, Washington asserts that “Egypt is on the frontline of the war against ISIL. We support the efforts it has undertaken to fight terrorist groups in Sinai.” In his interview with AP, El-Sisi noted Egypt’s absolute commitment “to cooperating in combating terrorism in the region, not only against ISIL. No, we are talking about Egypt’s support for a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism in the region and the world.”
Last month's meeting between El-Sisi and Obama confirms that all the dramatic changes that occurred in Egypt over the past three and a half years did not impact the nature of special relations between the two countries. It is clear Washington is indifferent to what happens inside Egypt unless it affects Egypt's key and expected role in dealing with the highly complex reality of the Arab region.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is a researcher focusing on Egyptian politics. Follow him on Twitter @ElMenshawyM.