On thin ice: Can the US hold on to its alliance with Egypt?

Published August 21st, 2013 - 11:48 GMT
An Egyptian army armoured vehicle is seen in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo ahead of planned demonstrations on August 18, 2013. (AFP)
An Egyptian army armoured vehicle is seen in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo ahead of planned demonstrations on August 18, 2013. (AFP)

Never before in the four-decade history of the US-Egyptian alliance has anti-Americanism reached such high levels that Sen. John McCain had to say the United Stated has no influence in that country.

He has now joined other lawmakers who are calling on the Obama administration to cut off the $1.5 billion annual aid package to Egypt. Congress and the US media are critical of the White House policy, or a lack of, on Egypt since the July 3 military action that ousted President Muhammad Mursi.

Obama has criticized the latest actions of the military-backed government and called on Egypt’s new leaders to end the state of emergency that was declared on the eve of the forced dispersal of sit-ins by Mursi supporters last week, which resulted in hundreds of deaths so far. 

The US president has stopped short of calling the military takeover a “coup,” something which would have forced him to suspend the flow of aid, most of which goes to the military. But Obama’s call to halt the ongoing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and to revert to a political path has fallen on deaf ears.

On the other hand, the interim regime in Egypt has rejected what it described as an intervention in the country’s internal affairs. It says it is fighting terrorism and thwarting conspiracies aimed at destabilizing the country. 

Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy has been critical of the western reaction to the events in Egypt. He rejected threats by foreign donors to cut off aid.

And Egypt’s military Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi made it clear that the current onslaught against enemies of the state will not be stopped.

Washington is seen by a growing number of Egyptians, who back the new order, as siding with the Muslim Brotherhood and their scheme to destabilize Egypt.

They also accuse the US of hypocrisy since Washington had backed the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak for three decades and failed to react swiftly in support of the millions who took to the streets in the Jan. 25 uprising, calling for his overthrow.

Egypt’s media has launched a scathing attack against Obama, McCain and the US ambassador to Cairo. Talk show hosts have called on the military to reject US aid and free the country from dependence on America. Tamarud, a youth-led movement, which was on the forefront of the rebellion against President Mursi, has said it will launch a new campaign asking Egyptians to sign a petition to end US aid and abrogate the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. A Pew poll conducted earlier this year found that only 24 percent of Egyptians saw the relationship with the US to be of some importance, while 69 percent believed it to be of little or no importance. 

Since the June 30 uprising and the ensuing military action, anti-American sentiments have spiked in Egypt.

Obama’s dilemma, and that of the West in general, has deepened in the aftermath of a strongly-worded statement by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah in which he reiterated the Kingdom’s sturdy support to Egypt’s new rulers and warned against any interference in the country’s internal affairs. 

The UAE and Jordan, both close US allies, also supported King Abdullah’s position, which contradicted the White House latest stance on the Egyptian crisis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were quick to offer generous financial aid to the new regime in Cairo immediately after the July 3 military takeover. And on Monday Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said that the Arabs were ready to make up for assistance that the West is threatening to suspend.

US lawmakers are split on the issue of suspending aid to Egypt and so is the European Union, which is holding a series of meetings this week to consider the future of its relations with Egypt. So far Egypt’s military establishment has been defiant, relying on a wave of popular support to its campaign to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood.

But while Egyptian officials say that foreign aid should not be used as a political pressure tool, it is clear that the country cannot afford to lose Western support at this critical stage. The military council realizes that its relationship with the United States goes beyond the $1.5 billion annual aid package. Similarly the West, especially the US, understands the strategic importance of Egypt, which has been an important partner in the fight against terrorism and in maintaining peace with Israel.

This is why Obama will hesitate to break up relations with Egypt’s new rulers despite calls in Washington to do so. At the same time the new regime in Cairo will hasten steps to implement a roadmap for the restoration of an elected civilian government as soon as possible. It understands that it will have to propose a political deal that will encompass moderates as well.

But with the strong Saudi and Arab support, the Egyptian regime is not likely to suspend its current crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which it accuses of dragging the country into chaos and mayhem. Such a campaign will keep relations with the West on the edge. The two sides will try to find common ground, but the nature of relations between them may be changing. Many Egyptians believe that time has come for their country to retake its role as a regional leader and free itself from dependence on Western aid.

By Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.


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