The United States and Egypt have taken significant strides towards repairing their crucial bilateral strategic relationship. But more needs to be done before a deeper rehabilitation of ties and trust is accomplished.
Major General Mohammed El-Tohamy, Egypt’s intelligence chief, recently led the first major delegation of Egyptian officials to visit Washington since the removal of Mohammed Morsi last summer. Mr El-Tohamy’s Washington trip focused heavily on issues the US and Egypt have in common: counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation, fighting extremism, preserving the peace treaty with Israel and maintaining a stable Middle East region. Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s foreign minister, has followed him to Washington this week.
Mr El-Tohamy’s visit appears to have been closely linked to the Obama administration’s certification that Egypt remains in full compliance with its peace treaty with Israel. This led to the resumption of military assistance to Egypt, including 10 Apache helicopters and $650 million in other military aid, about half the annual amount allocated for Egypt.
Washington seems to have been moved by a series of broader realisations. First, it has faced sustained criticism by some of its most important Gulf allies for what they perceive to be a strategic miscalculation. Tensions between Cairo and Washington served to undermine wider strategic relations in the Arab world.
Second, almost a year after the military’s intervention, Washington has had to ask itself whether it cares to be semi-permanently at odds with, or highly critical of, a new order in Egypt that seems popular and may not change dramatically for some time. The United States faced the option of a continued deterioration of relations with Egypt, and by extension some other key Arab allies, or beginning to come to terms with a new reality that is developing in Egypt regardless of what Washington thinks.
Third, the Egyptians had already demonstrated a willingness to look in other directions. A large amount of financial assistance has been pledged to the country from friendly Gulf states. More importantly, in February, Egypt secured a major arms deal from Moscow allegedly worth up to $3 billion, including MiG-29 fighter jets and Mi-35 helicopters. Even more startling are reports that Russia might be prepared to sell high-tech weapons to Egypt that it has not previously sold to any other country.
A strong indication that a strategic calculation is informing this American policy shift is that the symbolically significant $260 million in annual economic aid granted to Egypt is still being withheld, along with some other aspects of cooperation, until the state department certifies that Egypt is “taking steps to secure a transition to democracy”.
To many, this is a confusing hierarchy of values. But after scheduled elections take place, certification of progress towards democracy may prove within reach.
Egypt’s options are also limited. Its military is still heavily centred on US equipment and services. Transitioning to another primary supplier would be very costly and prolonged. It is one thing to demonstrate the existence of options, and quite another to try to actually shift to relying on them.
This is especially underscored by the close military relationship the US maintains, and in many ways is expanding, with Egypt’s Gulf Arab allies. Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine may have additionally prompted the US initiative to move to restore military ties.
While the interim Egyptian government may be making significant headway in winning over the Pentagon and State Department on strategic grounds, the Washington policy community and much of the media remains a largely hostile environment.
Egyptians who are sympathetic to the new government and the dominant national narrative invariably find themselves subjected to harsh criticism of a kind that Islamists have been largely insulated from in the past three years. Indeed, Islamists are still regarded by much of the Washington policy community with a misplaced aura of authenticity and legitimacy.
This is not just an Egyptian public relations problem. It certainly requires more effective outreach, but also has a real policy dimension.
Egypt needs to pursue its war against terrorists with the lightest possible touch. A second round of mass death sentences handed down Monday against 683 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters for the killing of a police officer is not seen as merely a judicial problem in Washington. Instead, such sentences are widely viewed as a symptom of a broader crackdown.
Not even the most critical opponents of the Brotherhood, can defend such verdicts, which have been harshly criticised by the administration. They will cast an avoidable pall over Mr Fahmy’s visit.
Yet Egypt and the United States need each other, as both seem to be starting to recall.
Americans need to register that Islamists are simply not proving popular in post-dictatorship Arab societies, and that Egypt faces a genuine threat from violent extremists. And Egyptians need to understand that the United States government is not cheering for the Muslim Brotherhood, but has legitimate concerns about democracy and human rights.
In order to continue progress in repairing strained relations, both sides are going to have to adjust their perceptions and their behaviour.