Egypt and the U.S.: A Partnership Rooted in the Past
– Marina Ottaway
The United States has long considered Egypt a strategic partner and a major non-NATO ally. But with a dreadful human rights record and dwindling returns, this author says it’s time for the U.S. to reevaluate its relationship to Egypt
The United States considers Egypt to be a strategic partner and a major non-NATO ally. Today, there is little justification for such designations. Egypt offers little of interest to the United States, but its human rights record is an embarrassment, particularly to an administration that claims its foreign policy is based on values. Undoubtedly, the United States has to contend with more difficult partners than Egypt, but that should not stop it from rethinking a relationship based on assumptions that are no longer valid.
Ineffectual leadership is not the only reason for Egypt’s loss of status and clout. Even more important are the irreversible structural changes in the region.
The present Egyptian regime came to power in July 2013 in a military coup d’état against an elected government. U.S. State Department lawyers, nimble with words and short on a sense of humor, refused to declare whether it was or was not a coup—we are not saying, they pronounced. Nine years later, Egypt is still dominated by the military, despite President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s attempt to recast himself as a civilian leader through three heavily manipulated elections. The country has a lamentable human rights record and clearly no intention to change. A cost-benefit analysis shows Egypt offers almost nothing to the United States. For decades it has ceased setting trends for the region politically, economically, and culturally—even the Egyptian soap operas that entertained families throughout the Middle East during the long nights of Ramadan have been supplanted by racier versions produced in Turkey. Under the circumstances, the relationship between the United States and Egypt is no longer a game worth the candle.
Egypt’s Changing Fortunes
Egypt was a leader in the region in the 1950s and 1960s when Gamal Abdel Nasser was president. His Arab nationalism and Arab socialism inspired an entire generation, not always for the better. His approach to economic development through state-controlled enterprises was widely imitated and remains an obstacle to growth in many countries. The safety net he provided to the poor through free services and subsidized basic commodities has become a huge financial burden to most countries but is proving difficult to modify.
After Nasser’s death, Egypt stopped being an aspirational example. Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, was also a bold leader, but he found no followers. He dared to travel to Jerusalem in September 1977, and he made peace with Israel in March 1979, but nobody followed suit. Instead, the Arab League responded by expelling Egypt for ten years. After Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists in October 1981, Hosni Mubarak focused for three decades on maintaining stability and not making waves, pushing Egypt ever closer to irrelevance. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has the ambition to be a player in the region, but has so far not demonstrated the capacity. Egypt remains on the sidelines.
Ineffectual leadership is not the only reason for Egypt’s loss of status and clout. Even more important are the irreversible structural changes in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt stood out in the Arab world as a real state, with a long history and civilization, functioning institutions, a well-educated elite, and a relatively developed and diversified economy by the standards of the time. It had the largest population in the region and controlled the Suez Canal, a crucial waterway linking the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. Most of the Arab world at the time consisted of new countries still struggling to establish their identity, or colonies and protectorates just regaining their independence, with economies barely able to survive. In the now rich oil producing countries, the wealth still remained buried in the sand. Today, Egypt no longer stands out as the most advanced country; in fact it is falling behind in terms of new initiatives and innovation, outcompeted not only by the rich, oil producing Gulf countries, but also by some of the more dynamic Maghreb countries like Morocco. And it has ceased being a model that other countries look up to. The visual contrast between the gleaming, artificial Gulf capitals like Abu Dhabi and Cairo, rich in history and monuments but choked with traffic and dirt and crumbling at the seams, tells the story eloquently.
A Different Middle East
As a result, Egypt offers little to the United States. To be sure, it remains the most populous Arab country, with 102 million people out of a total Arab population of 436 million, according to World Bank figures. (In 1960, Egypt’s population was 26 million, and the Arab population was 92 million.) But size is not everything. In the 1960s, per capita income in Egypt was roughly at the same level as that of the rest of the Middle East and North Africa region. In 2020 it was closer to one half. Present figures are distorted by the colossal revenue of the Gulf hydrocarbon producers, of course, but the fact remains that Egypt is not at the forefront.
The country still controls the Suez Canal, through which 10 percent of the world trade transits, but this is down from a high of about 15 percent. Furthermore, good U.S.-Egyptian relations cannot guarantee that it will stay open. In March 2021, the huge Ever Given container ship got wedged in the canal for six days due to a banal faulty maneuver. And in a war, the canal could easily be blocked, as was the case during the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, when Nasser ordered ships scuttled to prevent passage. The canal remained closed for eight years. The world survived without the canal, but the loss of transit fees deprived Egypt of much-needed foreign currency.
Other factors that justified the importance of good relations with Egypt to the United States, namely keeping Egypt in the Western camp and maintaining peace between Egypt and Israel, are now part of a bygone era. The United States had “lost” Egypt to the Soviet Union in the days of Nasser, so when Washington became a major player in the disengagement and ceasefire efforts that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Israel, it was a victory for the United States. The U.S. made a heavy diplomatic investment for several years to bring Egypt back into the fold. During 1974 and 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spent months shuttling between Arab capitals to bring about the disengagement of troops on the front lines between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria. This effort eliminated the danger of a resumption of hostilities and reestablished the United States as the most influential outsider in the region. The Soviet Union appeared sidelined
After President Sadat took the bold step of traveling to Jerusalem, President Jimmy Carter became the broker of the 1978 Camp David Accords and of the March 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The United States rewarded both countries lavishly with economic and military aid for reaching an agreement that was in their interest. Between 1978 and 2021, the United States provided Egypt with $50 billion in military aid and $30 billion in economic aid, according to State Department figures. (Israel received much larger amounts.) In 1921, Egypt still received $ 1.3 billion in aid from the United States, of which 96 percent was military. Aid was suspended briefly after the 2013 coup d’état, and in 2022 a small amount was withheld as a result of human rights violations.
U.S. intervention and assistance did nothing to move Egypt closer to democracy or to improve its record on human rights and women’s rights. In fact, human rights violations have been worsening under al-Sisi, who tolerates no criticism or expression of discontent. Although the country does not have an exceptionally bad record on women’s rights by the standards of the region, the present government--which has imprisoned its critics, prosecuted female influencers on “morality charges, and used smear tactics against assault victims--has done even less to address the problem than some of the preceding ones.
A Less-Than Faithful Ally
The military aid provided by the United States accounts for a relatively small part of the hardware Egypt seeks to acquire every year. Since coming to office, President al-Sisi has been focused on building the already-large Egyptian military. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Egypt’s international arms transfers, from aid or purchases, averaged about $752 million a year between 1990 and 2013. Since then, they have doubled to an average $1.47 billion a year. This means Egypt purchases a large amount of military hardware. France and Russia have become major arms suppliers to Egypt, in part because of U.S. reluctance to sell advanced aircraft and weapon systems. In 2019 Egypt announced a $2 billion deal to purchase 24 SU-35 fighter jets from Russia, despite warnings from the United States that by doing so, it might incur sanctions. Less alarming for the United States, in May 2021 it announced a $5 billion deal to purchase 30 Rafale fighter jets from France, after already buying two helicopter carrier ships from them, to be equipped with Soviet helicopters. Whatever problem this diversification of its weapon system may cause for the efficiency of the Egyptian military, the political implications are clear—a weakening of the relationship between the United States and Egypt. The Biden administration’s response has been to throw concerns about Egypt’s human rights record overboard and to sign a $2.5 billion armaments deal in January 2022. However, military aid and sales to Egypt have not consolidated Egypt’s position as a U.S. ally. Instead, the country continues to build its military by buying from Russia and France, countries less demanding on human rights issues and thus seen as more reliable. The United States is now trying to catch up, rather than enjoying a privileged relationship.
The current relationship between Egypt and the United States seems a throwback to a period when Egypt was at the center of the Arab world.
The second reason why the United States tried to cast Egypt as a strong U.S. partner was to consolidate peace between it and Israel. This was a good reason in the late 1970s. Forty years later, it is a weak one. Peace of course remains important, but the possibility of a war between Israel and Egypt has become extremely remote. Although peace between the two countries has remained cold and distant, they cooperate on matters of common concern, such as maintaining the stability of Sinai and curbing Islamist groups there, or keeping a handle on the flow of arms from Libya unleashed after Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown. Moreover, other countries have now made peace with Israel. Jordan did so in 1994, although in that case, too, relations remained cold and distant. Most importantly, the signing in September 2020 of the Abraham Accords by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the United States has changed the dynamics of Israeli-Arab relations, moving it away from Egypt and Jordan and into the Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates. Egypt will maintain peace with Israel because it is not its interest to pick a fight, but it will not drive the integration of Israel into the region, either. Its government does not have the vision and the dynamism to develop a new relationship with Israel’s advanced technological sectors and truly modernize its economy. A year after signing the Abraham Accords, the Emirates reported that the flow of bilateral trade with Israel had increased to $67 billion and predicted it would reach $1 trillion within ten years, an unrealistic figure but indicative of the Emirates' unbounded ambition. The Emirates are also moving ahead with a large number of contracts in the field of technology and security. In the meantime, Israeli tourists are flocking to Dubai, the most permissive of the Emirates, with 250,000 having visited by the end of 2021. Egypt is doing little to take advantage of the opportunities which Israel offers. The two countries are working together, and also with Cyprus, to export gas from the Eastern Mediterranean, where they all have oil fields, to Europe, taking advantage of liquefied natural gas terminals in Egypt. Aside from gas, however, there is little vitality in the economic relations between Israel and Egypt.
Time for a New Policy Toward Egypt
The current relationship between Egypt and the United States seems a throwback to a period when Egypt was at the center of the Arab world, and Nasser’s turning to the Soviet Union was a defeat for the United States. But Egypt lost its standing in the region decades ago, as a result of poor leadership and deep structural changes in the regional economy. Its partnership with Egypt today no longer gives the United States an advantage in a region where the center of gravity has moved to the Gulf. Furthermore, the partnership is weak. Egypt still wants the prestige of holding strategic dialogues with the United States, but offers little in return. It ignores Washington’s pressure to improve its human rights record, and it buys weapons from Russia and France, leaving the United States scrambling to compete. Most recently, when the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend Russian membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council because its invasion of Ukraine, Egypt abstained, despite intense lobbying by the United States. The cost of the U.S. relationship with Egypt is not particularly high, but the benefits appear even lower. The policy is rooted in the past, on the perception of an Egypt that no longer exists. It is time to rethink it.
Marina Ottaway is a Middle East Fellow at The Wilson Center and a long-time analyst of political transformations in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. She is working on a project about the countries of the Arab Spring and Iraq. Ottaway joined the Wilson Center after 14 years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she played a central role in launching the Middle East Program. Prior to that, she carried out research in Africa and in the Middle East for many years and taught at Georgetown University, the Johns Hopkins Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, the American University in Cairo, the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the University of Zambia, and Addis Ababa University. Her extensive research experience is reflected in her publications, which include 15 books--nine authored and six edited.
Cover photo: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the North lawn of the White House as they completed signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in Washington. March 26, 1979. AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File.