National Security & Defense

Egypt Looks for an Expanded Role in America’s Foreign Policy

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Reuters photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Cairo got the cold shoulder from Obama but hopes that Trump will work more closely with it

Cairo — Tahrir Square is quiet today. There are no signs that a momentous uprising occurred here in 2011, ending almost 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. There is no major monument to the 1,000 people who died in the Arab Spring in Cairo. Instead, commuters queue to get on an elevator that takes them down to the Metro station, which was reopened in 2015. It was closed in 2013 after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was removed from power by the army.

When Egyptians talk about the recent past, many see the 2011 revolution — or thawra, in Arabic — as ushering in instability associated with the Arab Spring and economic hardship. It is a country in waiting, worried about what the future brings, and deeply rooted in the past. There is flirting with nostalgia for the Mubarak era.

In January, inflation reached 30 percent; the Egyptian pound is near historic lows, at 18 to the dollar. Tourism suffered an 80 percent decline since 2010; at many sites the vast majority of tourists are Chinese — Westerners are absent. The Egyptian government, security forces, and tourism industry hope that they have turned a corner and that the worst may be over. A $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund was secured last November. From conversations with members of parliament, civil-society activists, and former and current diplomats, it is clear that many hope that the new U.S. administration will see shared interests with Egypt and work more closely with Cairo.

At the top of the pyramid of expectations is President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces under Morsi, he repeatedly warned the Obama administration that the rise of Islamist political forces threatened the country. In a declassified e-mail to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on September 14, 2012, a source was quoted as saying, “Sissi [sic] is prepared to have his troops take harsh measures against any demonstrators who attack Western personnel and facilities.” Believing that the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader would become “intoxicated” by power, Sisi was concerned about plans to “transform Egypt into a moderate Islamic republic,” according to the memo. Morsi vowed to bring the “blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, who died recently in a federal prison for plotting attacks on the U.S., back to Egypt for a hero’s welcome.

When millions of anti-Morsi protesters streamed into the streets in late June 2013, Sisi ordered the army to remove the president. The popular daily Al-Ahram claimed that the anti-Morsi protesters numbered 30 million and that the vast majority wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to be toppled. Since then, the government and many Egyptians I spoke with have said that the 2013 upheaval saved Egypt from civil war and “a swamp of blood,” as one called it.

“We feel Egypt is coming back together,” says Dalia Ziada, executive director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt. “The [Muslim] Brotherhood declared war on us — they began attacking Christians, churches, houses. There have been more than 3,000 crimes committed by the Brotherhood.”

Ziada and others say they were initially excited about relations with the U.S. under Barack Obama. As a young activist she attended his 2009 Cairo speech. “We were shouting ‘I love you.’ but now when he left [office], no one is happy with him — he supported the [Muslim] Brotherhood and took sides against Egypt in its darkest moment.” She argues that the U.S. and others should understand that Egypt requires security and is fighting a war on terror — that it is not just a dialogue about democracy. She describes an Egypt that can be a model for the Middle East: It would be marked by religious tolerance and moderation and would improve work on human rights and democracy, but at a pace that would not lead to instability.

Concerned about Iranian influence in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, Egypt is trying to navigate between that and its fears of the instability that has fueled ISIS and Islamist extremism generally.

One former ambassador to Egypt, speaking to a visiting private U.S. delegation on February 8 at the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs, said that the U.S. should realize that “we are a force of stability and we anchor [stability in the region]. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 helped Iran widen their scope of influence.” Cairo could play a role in regional security frameworks, sometimes dubbed “Arab NATO,” that could confront Iran and other terror threats.

During Obama’s tenure, Sisi received the cold shoulder in Washington, and analysts such as Michele Dunne at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued against “unqualified support” for his government. These attitudes, along with a 2015 visit by Muslim Brotherhood figures to Washington, was interpreted in Cairo as continued support for the Brotherhood. Today Egypt’s political establishment has quietly welcomed Ted Cruz’s introduction of a bill in Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. His effort dovetails with Egypt’s own law banning the organization.

Andrea Zaki Stephanous, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt — he says they represent about 2 million Egyptians — comments that his community and others are looking forward to the new government in the U.S. “I don’t want to enter into the issue of pro-Trump or against, but regardless my country is optimistic [about] the relationship with the U.S. and the new administration. . . . It is not only military but goes beyond that, including economic aid.” Most of the aid currently provided amounts to $1.3 billion a year in foreign military financing, about a quarter of the assistance that the U.S. gives globally.

The military aid is consistent with almost four decades of U.S. support for the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty. Eric R. Mandel, founder of the Middle East Political and Information Network, recently returned from a trip to Cairo and says that U.S. leaders should see the Egyptian–Israeli relationship as close, mutually beneficial, and good for Israel’s security as well as for securing the Egyptian–Libyan border.

This puts Cairo in a unique position to return to its traditional role as a central Arab power in the region. Concerned about Iranian influence in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, it is trying to navigate between that and its fears of the instability, in Syria and elsewhere, that has fueled ISIS and Islamist extremism generally. After six years of uncertainty and a rocky relationship with the U.S., many Egyptians seem open to new faces in Washington. After the visit by CIA director Mike Pompeo to Turkey and by defense secretary James Mattis to the United Arab Emirates, Egyptians are watching closely for signals that might indicate where Cairo stands in Trump’s foreign policy.

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