Plus ça Change
Though Mubarak is gone, the relationship between Washington and Cairo is mostly unchanged
It has been more than two years since the people of Egypt rose up and tossed out the government of Hosni Mubarak. In the process, President Obama helped end the old regime by insisting in private that Mubarak step aside to make way for new leadership.
We tend to speak of the events that took place in Egypt during the Arab Spring as a revolution, one with major consequences for Egyptian political life and also for Egypt’s relations with the United States. However, in many regards it is also instructive to reflect on just how little has actually changed.
Egypt still serves as a key American ally in the fight against terrorism and in Washington’s strategy toward the region. During the war last year between Hamas and Israel, the Egyptian government still served as America’s most important partner for mediating between the parties.
As was the case before the revolution, the United States currently views Egyptian needs through a prism of what is good for Israel. US officials worry more now about the fate of the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty, but the treaty still stands. In addition, recent reports suggest that the new Egyptian government remains concerned to about preventing smuggling through the Sinai border.
Egypt still receives an enormous amount of American foreign assistance, more than almost any other country in the world. Still, most of this aid goes to the military and government of Egypt rather than to civil society. And in spite of what Secretary of State John Kerry said in his recent visit to Cairo, US aid to Egypt is not conditioned on democratization in any sort of meaningful, effective way.
The reason this is important is that Egypt’s new leaders continue to govern in a manner that rigs the rules of political competition so that the opposition is always at a strategic disadvantage. Although the Muslim Brotherhood continues to express their support for an open and democratic system, their hypocrisy is on full display when they use the same apparatus of repression that was established by the old regime against peaceful protestors.
Therefore, Egypt’s opposition faces the same classic dilemma of whether to boycott the upcoming elections or to participate in them even after the fall of Mubarak. It seems that America’s true sympathies are with the opposition, but American policy continues to display a bias in favor of the Egyptian government.
Of course, from Washington’s perspective much has changed as well. Americans harbor deep distrust toward the Egyptian president regarding his true intentions for the long term, and they are right to do so. Egypt is in serious need of an economic rescue package from the US and from the International Monetary Fund, and the need for such a package today is much greater than it was during the old regime. US officials are frightened that either continued chaos or Islamist hegemony without end will be the likely outcome of current events in Egypt
These changes raise the stakes for reaching a sustainable US–Egyptian strategic understanding, but America’s leverage over Cairo remains limited. Americans continue to prioritize Israeli needs over Egyptian ones and domestic priorities over international ones. And at the end of the day, state interests remain surprisingly constant.