The United States’ relations with all of its allies and friends across the world are quite similar — they are all based on military ties and agreements. Military cooperation has been at the core of relations between Europe and the US since the end of World War I, superseding any other type of liaison, including cultural. For instance, French-US relations have always been positively correlated with the warmth of France’s relations with NATO, the main pillar of the US’ military, political and economic influence in Europe and France. In other words, the rise and fall of French-US relations have always paralleled the rise and fall of both French-US bilateral military cooperation and NATO collective military cooperation.
Egyptian-US relations are no exception to this type of arrangement. In fact, since the signature of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel [in 1978] the relations between the two countries have been based on military grounds. In the 1990s, the US decision to reduce aid to Egypt only decreased economic assistance, whereas financial support to the military was unchanged.
Egyptian-US military cooperation only grew with the expansion of the US’ military role in the Middle East during the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War and the occupation of Iraq. Egypt’s military coordination with NATO has also risen given that Egypt is seen as an important figure in Middle Eastern affairs. What’s more, Israel’s cooperation with NATO in the Middle East did not prevent Mubarak from deepening Egypt’s ties with NATO, highlighting the weight that military partnership took in US-Egyptian affairs. Cooperation with NATO was always deemed to be a precondition to increased ties with the US.
Egyptian-US military relations, which were crafted within the framework of the Camp David Accords, have been becoming more important since the late 1970s. US interests gained strength after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the US taking on the role of the world’s only superpower.
In light of US hegemony in the region and growing military cooperation between Egypt and the US, Egypt stopped confronting Israel. Consequently, it sought further increases in US military coordination. Egypt got its wish under a NATO umbrella. The importance of NATO's regional role was underlined by the recent events in Libya, in which a NATO intervention directly led to the downfall of the Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
Egyptian-US military cooperation is no longer limited to the series of biennial joint training exercises led by American and Egyptian forces in Egypt, called "Operation Bright Star," which began shortly after the signature of the Camp David Treaty. Operation Bright Star has also been expanded to include Arab and Atlantic countries. The goal of these joint exercises is not yet clear. However, it is clear that they cannot aim at harming Israel or any other country that has military, political and economic ties with the US.
Egypt’s big surprise — the January 25 revolution — called into question Egyptian-US relations like no other developments since the 1970s, leaving the US and its military institutions particularly worried. As a consequence of the popular uprisings, the US was forced to stop supporting the old regime and to start calling for the overthrow of Mubarak and the establishment of democracy.
Since the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution a year ago, it has become clearer than ever to what extent the US is keen on maintaining its special relations with Egypt. Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak, senior US military commanders have continuously visited Cairo to hold urgent meetings with the president of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Vice President Sami Annan. It should be noted that most of these American visits were made by senior officers of the US Central Command, which have been the ones primarily in charge of maintaining US military hegemony in the Middle East.
Ever since it announced its support for Egypt’s “new regime," the US has shown interest in establishing democracy in Egypt, promoting a deepening of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party prior to the Egyptian parliamentary elections. These elections resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s party winning a majority of seats, followed by the Salafist al-Nour party in number of seats won.
These developments have revealed the extent of US diplomat’s years-long interest in establishing secret relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, even under the Mubarak regime. US influence gave rise to political deals between this regime and that movement, enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to win 88 seats in the parliamentary elections of 2005.
Throughout the post-parliamentary election period, the US has shown increasing interest in Egyptian political developments due to a number of factors. They have taken a particular interest in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fact that the Brotherhood is about to devour power in Egypt as the transitional period, which has been overseen by the SCAF, is drawing to an end. On the other hand, the civic groups — which played a key role in the revolution despite having belatedly joined it — are increasingly defying the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US has begun to engage in consultations with both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood regarding these developments, which have followed 40 years of political oblivion in Egypt.
US interest in consolidating Egyptian democracy has confused both US politicians and Egyptian military rulers. The military has repeatedly expressed its willingness to hand over power to the civilians who will be elected by the end of next June.
The US no longer sees the current military relationship with Egypt as a sufficient guarantee to democracy in Egypt after the transitional period. In recent weeks, the US has seemingly hoped for assurances from the SCAF that it would not interfere in the work of NGOs in the Egyptian democratic process.
Then, the SCAF suddenly decided to send an Egyptian military delegation to Washington for talks with US Department of Defense and State Department officials about political developments in Egypt. Interestingly, this was announced by US officials in Washington — not by Egyptian officials in Cairo. This sudden move has worried the US, especially considering the SCAF’s recent ban on US citizens working in civic organizations in Egypt which receive financial support from their US parent organizations. It quickly became clear that the Egyptian military delegation to Washington had been tasked with negotiating with congressional leaders about the US Congress’ explicit threats to reduce or halt US military aid to Egypt.
The sending of the Egyptian military delegation to Washington reveals a level of tension between Egypt and the US that has been unprecedented since the signing of the treaty at Camp David under US auspices. However, Washington is keen on limiting this tension to the realm of SCAF’s actions against NGOs whose activities depend on US funding. On this issue, Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the US State Department, said, "Washington is not trying to reach a tactical decision regarding the American group which was prevented from traveling. It is rather trying to achieve a strategic [solution] for the issue of NGOs in Egypt, including [how to establish] a registration system for them.”
However, The New York Times was — as usual — less subtle than the US spokesperson. The paper has written that Egypt in the post-Mubarak period is facing serious challenges related to the revolution. It has also written that the revolution is not yet over, and that Egypt has no need to create problems with the US. In other words, The New York Times does not see these issues as limited some Americans being unable to leave Egypt until the end of investigations into NGO activity.
For its part, the Christian Science Monitor was even more blunt. It wrote that the military delegation’s visit represented a warning by the Egyptian military against pushing them toward any rapid change, and that the move was maybe meant to be a reminder to the US not to meddle with the Egyptian military’s interests. It said that the SCAF is playing “a dangerous game.”
For all these reasons, we can conclude that the status quo has led to heightened tension between Egypt and the US. The US has not offered Egypt any assurances regarding its reduction in military aid. On the other hand, the US also faces uncertainties in that it needs guarantees of the SCAF's cooperation regardless of any political developments in Egypt.
In fact, the tension currently plaguing relations between Cairo and Washington has more serious implications than the mere continuation of post-revolutionary relations between the two countries — it is explicitly or implicitly related to the terms of military relations between Egypt and the US. One of the key issues is Egypt’s commitment to the Camp David Accords and its peace with Israel.
It is no secret that the US wants Egypt’s military to abide by these treaties in return for military aid. Meanwhile, Washington seems satisfied with the Muslim Brotherhood’s reassurance that Egypt will remain committed to the Treaty, and tranquil relations with Israel will be preserved under its rule.
Regardless, the ongoing revolution in Egypt has forced the US to reconsider the future of its military ties with Egypt, whichever party will gain power.
So far, Washington has appeared determined to reconsider these ties in order to get democratic guarantees during the transitional period. This eagerness for pluralistic democracy contrasts with the fact that the US clearly also seeks to keep military cooperation at the center of any future relations. Indeed, military cooperation remains the focal point for its foreign policy with regards to many Middle Eastern countries.
The US may therefore continue to show special interest for relations with the SCAF during the post-transitional period, regardless of whether the SCAF prolongs this period or delivers on its promises to hand over power on time.
Either way, against the backdrop of waning US interest in democracy in Egypt, the relationship between the Egyptian military establishment and the US will have clear implications on developments over the coming months.