Egyptian and American officials held a joint ceremony in Cairo on Feb. 3, 2013, to mark the delivery of four new F-16 aircrafts to the Egyptian Air Force. The U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, marked the development by saying: "We look to Egypt to continue to serve as a force for peace, security, and leadership as the Middle East proceeds with its challenging yet essential journey toward democracy."
A week earlier in Washington, while Egypt's streets erupted in violence, the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment introduced by Senator Paul Ryan to prohibit the transfer of twenty more F-16 fighter jets to Egypt by a vote of 79 to 19. Both actions in Cairo and Washington showed the bilateral relationship as stable, declaring business as usual. Yet as Egypt now faces its second week of protests and curfews, these clashes signal a moment of transition in the Morsi government's foreign affairs. Relations with Washington will not be isolated from the impact of Egyptian popular opinion. As a result, a new calculus is needed in U.S.-Egypt policymaking in the wake of this latest uprising.
Since the historic ousting of Hosni Mubarak two years ago, Washington has sought to maintain ties with Egypt similar to those forged under the prior regime, in spite of the country's now Islamist-majority government. On Dec. 4, 2012, President Obama received Dr. Essam al-Haddad, a member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood and the senior adviser to President Mohamed Morsi for Foreign Policy and International Cooperation. Yet while the past three decades have seen a pragmatic bilateral relationship between Washington and Egypt, recent developments threaten greater challenges in the emerging relationship between the two countries. President Morsi's track record during his first seven months in office and increasing pressure from the ongoing opposition protests, as well as demands from his Muslim Brotherhood base and Salafi allies may mark the end of a bilateral relationship based solely on an "aid for cooperation."
Egypt under Mubarak was one of America's most important allies, with the U.S. granting the regime more than $70 billion of aid over the past 30 years. In return, Cairo stood firm next to Washington on three basic tenets. The first was support for the military relationship that developed with the adoption of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Since 1979, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient, after Israel, of American foreign assistance, including an annual $1.3 billion in military aid. In return, Washington enjoyed priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace. Egypt also hosts a biannual military exercise, Operation Bright Star, in which American, Egyptian and other allied military personnel participate in a joint common military exercise, the largest of its kind in the world.
Intelligence operations became a second serious area of cooperation after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. In 1995, President Clinton approved the start of the "rendition" policy which saw the extradition of dozens of suspected terrorists to Cairo, whereupon torture methods were employed as a form of interrogation. Finally, regional security became a cornerstone for U.S. strategy in the Middle East during the decades-long rule under Mubarak. During this time, Egypt led the "moderate Arab state camp," standing firm against Iran and its regional hegemonic ambition, including both Hamas and Hezbollah.
In addition to military cooperation, intelligence operations, and regional security, Egypt's relationship with Israel has always been a top priority for American policy. But while Mubarak's authoritarianism had allowed him to craft policy toward Israel to some degree isolated from popular backlash, the democratically-elected Morsi is granted no such buffer. As Egypt's cities and towns spill over with anger and frustration, the new chaotic political order puts pressure on President Morsi to ensure that his foreign policy is responsive to public demands.
The crisis in Gaza this past November is an apt example of the tension that Morsi faces as he tries to balance a continuation of Mubarak-era foreign relations with the newly introduced element of popular political leverage. On the one hand, his quick actions to recall Egypt's ambassador from Tel Aviv, while sending his prime minister to Gaza showed solidarity with Hamas, which satisfied his conservative supporters. Meanwhile, President Morsi himself worked cooperatively with key American officials in order to reach a ceasefire. Morsi's role in the truce negotiation has since earned him praise from President Obama and Israeli leaders, but it also ran the risk of undermining his domestic legitimacy. As he strives to satisfy both domestic and foreign audiences, Morsi faces a far more delicate balancing act than his predecessor.
While President Morsi has reaffirmed his commitment to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, he and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to distance themselves from any public recognition of Israel. When asked recently by CNN if he acknowledged the State of Israel, Morsi replied, "Israel is a U.N. member, so the question seems strange, because the party who needs a place and state are the Palestinians." Morsi's avoidance of the question seems to reveal a continued adherence to the Brotherhood's policy in regards to Israel, and speaks to his careful calibration in maintaining the Egypt-Israel treaties while not publicly demonstrating support for the country or its policies.
As dynamics within Egypt's domestic politics continue to shift, a new paradigm for mutually recognized strategic interests between Cairo and Washington is urgently needed. It should not be assumed that Morsi will pick up where Mubarak and the SCAF left off in their relations with Washington. The Muslim Brotherhood will not be able to ignore voters and domestic political allies such as the Salafis, and with dozens already dead in the latest unrest, both Washington and Cairo must acknowledge that the options of the autocrat are no longer the Egyptian president's to pursue. A recent Gallup poll showed that fewer than one in five Egyptians express a positive view of the United States, demonstrating widespread discontent regarding American intentions over the past two years. Domestic concerns such as these may well incite President Morsi to adopt a more independent and confrontational foreign policy.
*Mohamed Elmenshawy is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He writes a weekly article in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org Or on twitter: @ElmenshawyM