POMED Notes: U.S.-Egyptian Relations: Where is the Bilateral Relationship Headed?
The Center for National Policy hosted an event on Thursday (10/4) entitled “U.S.-Egyptian Relations: Where is the Bilateral Relationship Headed?” The discussion centered around the slow and initial tepid response of the new Egyptian leadership to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The response caused some members of Congress to advocate for a cut in U.S. assistance. On the other hand, both Egyptian and U.S. officials have indicated that they want the bilateral relationship to be maintained. Gregory Aftandilian, CNP Senior Fellow for the Middle East; Perry Cammack, Staff Member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy; and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland analyzed the situation and gave their assessments on where the bilateral relationship is headed.
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Shibley Telhami said Egypt is central to U.S. policy in the Middle East and will always be important. He saw Egypt as a model, in that regional trends will be influenced by the internal evolution of the country. “Congress is always interested in terrorism and the consequences for Israel when discussing change in Egypt,” he said. He also noted that the Arab/Israeli issue will always be tied to Egypt. Telhami was adamant that despite the recent outburst of violence American leadership should not panic and institute changes that damage the long-term relationship between the U.S. and Egypt. He said although Egypt’s economy is in shambles and demonstrations are still happening, the country is relatively stable. Telhami noted “transformations are always turbulent and that the absence of major violent episodes has been rather remarkable.” Egypt has successfully held elections, refrained from threatening Israel, and moved on terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula; all reasons to be optimistic, he said.“The Egyptian public is not happy with the U.S. because of its legacy of supporting repressive regimes in the region, and for getting those regimes to support unpopular policies, such as the invasion of Iraq and treaties with Israel,” highlighting the potential for Egyptian anger. He ended by saying “now is not the time to pull back from Egypt, but it is precisely the time to intensify diplomatic relations.”
Perry Cammack began by saying he sees the “glass as half-full in Egypt.” He was certain the “history of moderation in the country would keep things from going off the rails.” The jury is still out on President Mohammed Morsi, Cammack said. It is not clear what Morsi’s worldview and vision for Egypt might be. Yet, Cammack felt that the Freedom and Justice Party should not be viewed through a Western political lens. The Muslim Brotherhood has spent 80 years as an opposition party and needs time to adjust to its new role. Cammack noted that the Brotherhood understands they will be judged on practical issues, and that they need to convince tourists and investors to return to Egypt. Cammack was positive that the Brotherhood is looking for cordial relations with the U.S.; however the public wants Egyptian leaders to be assertive. He was satisfied with Morsi’s handling of terrorism in the Sinai, as well as the embassy attack. Cammack said once Morsi realized the gravity of the events, he took action. Cammack pointed out that “three years ago an Islamist president in Egypt looked very unlikely, but once it became a reality, the American public remained largely uninterested.” Cammack said Congress understands the importance of Egypt, the embassy attacks were bumps in the road, and U.S. leaders will not indiscriminately cut ties with such an important regional partner.
Steve McInerney said Egyptians are confused by U.S. foreign policy, and activists he has met with “don’t have comments on the policy because they can’t understand it.” He said liberals and other Islamists in Egypt perceive that there is strong U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood, recalling an instance where a U.S. representative was questioned on the “supposed installation of the FJP.” He said there has been criticism that during the Mubarak era, the U.S. supported the dictatorship. Following the revolution, it supported the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Finally, it is perceived to be giving unbalanced support to the Muslim Brotherhood. McInerney advised policymakers to make an effort to “engage Egypt more broadly.” He said a cause for concern at the moment is the rise of police abuse and a lack of reform. He said the Brotherhood’s view is “you can either fight crime, or reform. You can’t do both at the same time.” McInerney noted that the trend of abuse has grown since Morsi’s election. He ended by saying the escalation of human rights abuses could eventually harm the bilateral relationship and urged progress in police reform.
During the Q&A session, Perry said both governments will be reluctant to discuss how their relationship could look over the next three to five years. McInerney pointed out the current aid package was originally structured without easy options for change, making a fresh approach more difficult. Aftandilian agreed that military aid has long been important for strategic planners in the U.S. and there will be great reluctance to alter the current aid package. McInerney also said addressing military influence in the Egyptian government and economy will not be up for discussion in the short-term, but the Muslim Brotherhood will be forced to address it in the long-term. Perry supported the assertion saying the SCAF’s authority will remain a political battle for the next 10 to 20 years.