Amreeka The Essential

The relationship between the United States and Egypt has been on autopilot for three or four decades. It is a measure of its confusion that the present turbulence is not forcing the controls back into sensible human hands. Egypt can be safely ignored in Washington, or used for cheap partisan shots; meanwhile in Cairo anti-Americanism is available in a variety of lurid forms, both tragic and comic. it seems no one is willing to either bury or praise the long cherished strategic alliance between the two countries.  The fraying relationship is a victim of American inattention and Egyptian misconstruction.

Egypt’s geopolitical location has generated a variety of suitors, occupiers and near-occupiers among world powers.  None have been as helpful to Egypt as the United States. It is true that the US has gotten its money’s worth for the aid provided, but it is also irrelevant. There is nothing wrong with a friend who is prudent in pursuit of self-interest. Twice in 25 years the United States has assisted in restoring Egyptian territorial integrity; in 1956 by opposing the tripartite incursion and in 1978 by dogged negotiations at Camp David. That much of the Egyptian ruling elite found the agreement “humiliating” is a reflection of deluded nationalism and insouciance about the economic fate of poorer countrymen. They failed to capitalize on the 1982 withdrawal and achieve stability and prosperity for the Sinai, as they have failed to use the loan forgiveness in 1991 to launch a project of liberalization and economic advancement for Egypt.

But to focus only on the last half-century is to ignore the older and deeper roots of the Egyptian-American relations. In the 1870s the fight against slavery in the Sudan was assisted by ex-confederate officers, ironically left jobless by their failure to defend slavery in the American South.  American research and education has benefited Egypt for over a century. American missionaries arrived in middle of the 19th century causing panic among the Copts. But their presence, and example, accelerated a nascent movement to reform the Church and community. A century later the US (along with Canada) would open its doors to waves of Coptic immigrants large enough to make North American second only to Egypt in the number of Copts. Neither has the US welcome been sectarian. Today the average Egyptian-American Muslim is less disadvantaged in the US than in Egypt, especially if he or she belongs to an Islamist current.

Yet the fault does not rest entirely with the distorted Egyptian view of the West. After the accomplishments of Kissinger and Carter, American policy toward Egypt became part-and-parcel of the “Middle East” policy. Thus the complex tapestry of a diverse Egypt was reduced to a single thread of a policy toward a region, whose very name is a fiction invented by a 19th century American Admiral. In the ugly decade following the 2001 terrorist attack, the US policy makers broke into two camps, those who waged war without reason and those who sought reconciliation without sense. The American policy toward Egypt oscillated between passive inattention, romantic enchantment with “moderate Islamism” and fervid “Democracy promotion”. It failed to see that what Egypt needs is liberalism with a heavy dose of anti-democratic measures to counter-balance toxic populism. Rarely did the US hold up its example where a strict separation between state and religion allowed a liberal polity with a vigorous and diverse religious society, and where the system retards rather than responds to popular passions. When the revolution of 2011 broke, the US was left with a handful of platitudes, labels and slogans. Instead of supporting an “Egyptian solution”, it could have plainly recommended that the Army get out of government and government get out of the economy. Twice it was given golden opportunities to exert its influence as a moderating friend and break the fever of the revolution, and twice it failed to act on it. The US could have supported a negotiated and systemic transition in February 2011 and instead opted for adoption of street revolutionary slogans. And again in November 2012 the US could have spoken against an ugly constitution that violated American values and a clumsy grab at power by a novice President. Instead it passively stood by , enamored by some other “Middle East” success in Gaza, and sealed the fate of both President Morsi and many of his followers. Missed opportunities beget lost options. The events of July 3 and August 14 2013 left the US confused of language and bereft of action.

Is a divorce now in order? Perhaps, but it is one that will not benefit either country. The righting of the relationship demands rebuilding on entirely different basis, one focused more on the needs of the average Egyptians than their ruling elite. When a marriage fails, the second best can be a respectful friendship.

– Maged Atiya


2 Comments on “Amreeka The Essential”

  1. Ed Iskander says:

    Thanks for the excellent article! You are both a great scholar and great writer. Keep up the terrific work.


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