For a man who has challenged almost all conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy, President Trump’s first phone call to his Egyptian counterpart after taking office could have been copied from any of his predecessors since the late 70’s. Stressing the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries, he affirmed his commitment to deepening a relationship “which has helped both countries overcome challenges in the region for decades.”
From the moment that Secretary Kissinger and President Sadat began the process of moving Egypt away from the Soviet Union, into the American camp, and forging a peace treaty with Israel, Washington believed that what was at stake was more than one country’s trajectory. Kissinger once dismissed the words of Nasser’s alter ego, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal “Egypt is not merely a state on the banks of the Nile, but an embodiment of an idea, a tide, a historical movement,” as frivolous talk replying that he could not negotiate with an idea. In truth, however, the basic premise, that Egypt was not merely a country, but rather the leader of the Arabic speaking world, has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for the past five decades.
Washington could be forgiven the assumption. Geography had placed Egypt at the center of the Arabic speaking world and demography had ensured its dominance, but it was history that spoke to the country’s centrality. Breaking away from the Ottoman yoke and ruled by an ambitious Albanian officer, Egypt had been the first country in the region to begin the process of modernization. Khedive Ismail’s dream of turning Cairo into the Paris on the Nile soon attracted tens of thousands of Levantines escaping religious and political repression, and it was in Cairo that the Arab Renaissance would unfold in its newspapers and cultural salons. Egypt may have been a late comer to the cause of Arab nationalism, but it was Cairo’s leadership, as Fouad Ajami wrote, “that gave Arab nationalism the concrete reality it came to possess.” From modernity, Arab nationalism to Islamism, the grand ideas of the Arabic speaking peoples had to be born or pass through Cairo, before they were to take hold of the region.
But Egypt’s centrality to the world of the Arabs went well beyond politics and history. When Arabs read, they read the works of the Egyptian literary giants Tawfik El Hakim, Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz, when they watched movies they saw themselves in Faten Hamama, Rushdi Abaza and Soad Hosny and when they listened, it was to the voices of Om Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez. Egyptian hegemony was such, that to succeed, Arabic speaking actors and musicians had to perform the pilgrimage to Cairo if they hoped to be something more than a local curiosity. What happened in Cairo did not stay in Cairo, so went the popular saying.
If Egypt had led the Arabic speaking peoples in their liberal experiment, and then led them again in pursuit of national independence and dreams of Arab glory, could the country not lead them then to peace with Israel and into the American regional order? American statesmen had tried in the past to court Egypt and failed. In Sadat, they had finally been able to find a willing partner.
But signs were, however, already abounding that the American bet on Egypt was misplaced. As Mike Doran has noted in Ike's Gamble, late in his presidency, Eisenhower had recognized that the very premise of Arab nationalism and Egypt’s leadership were belied by the intra-Arab competition which was often fiercer than the one with Israel. Egyptian dominance had been met with resistance, first from Iraq, both under the monarchy and Abdel Karim Qasim, and later by Saudi Arabia. The 1960’s were not the story of Egyptian supremacy but rather of an Arab Cold War pitting a conservative monarchical regime against revolutionary forces. In that war, Egypt had lost. Following 1967 and in the Khartoum Summit, famous for its three no’s to peace, recognition or negotiations with Israel, Nasser had also given a yes. Humiliated by his military defeat and with Egypt increasingly at the brink of economic meltdown, Nasser had waived the white flag to Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal.
Sadat would only double down on the surrender. With the country crumbling under the pressure of its demographic weight and economic troubles, Egypt could not afford the luxury of Arab leadership. Isolated from the Arab world after his peace treaty with Israel, Sadat entertained filling the policing role vacated by the Shah of Iran. In the now forgotten Safari Club, he had committed his country to far away conflicts in Zaire and Somalia, and following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he fancied a role in arming the Mujahedeen. But if Egypt’s dreams of glory abroad had turned into tragedy under Nasser, its second try had been a farce. The story was not simply that of Egypt’s slow decline, but also that of the rise of the rest. Oil had permanently changed the balance of power in the region, and with the post-independence Arab states each crumbling under their own predicament, Egypt mattered less and less. As early as 1982, Fouad Ajami had prophesied “Arabs would now read less and less of themselves into Egypt. The era of Egyptian primacy in Arab politics is of the past … the young men and women forged by Beirut’s long ordeal could not recognize themselves in the order of Cairo.”
For Washington the strategic partnership with Egypt has been filled with continued disappointments. Reagan during the Achille Lauro hijacking, Clinton with Egypt’s pushback against Shimon Peres’ plans for economic cooperation between Arab states and Israel and Mubarak encouraging Arafat not to offer concessions in Camp David II, each president had come to agonize over Washington’s problematic partner. Nor were Egypt’s regional policies the sole source of tensions with Washington. George W. Bush grew frustrated with Mubarak’s refusal to reform, and Obama was exasperated with Egypt’s failure to live up to his expectations regarding democratization to the extent that an administration source declared “if you want to put Obama in a bad mood, tell him he has to go to a Situation Room meeting about Egypt.” Only George H.W. Bush escaped the frustration when Mubarak, due to his anger at Saddam Hussein’s lies and need of Gulf financial support, gave the United States the necessary Arab cover for the Desert Storm operation sending his military to take part in Kuwait’s liberation.
Does Egypt today still matter? Some in Washington have been arguing otherwise. True, rights of passage through the Suez Canal are helpful and so are flights over Egyptian airspace, but the United States can survive without both. Egypt’s control of the Arab League is no longer as strong as in the past and in all cases the Arab League is irrelevant anyway. Maintaining the peace treaty with Israel is in Egypt’s own interests and not dependent on U.S. support. Al Azhar holds no sway over the world’s Muslim population, and Egypt’s cultural decline leaves it with limited soft power capabilities over Arabic speaking peoples. From Syria to Yemen and even in neighboring Libya, Egypt has lost its ability to impact its surroundings. Even regional allies are growing frustrated with Egypt and its president. Those in the Gulf dreaming of Egypt becoming a counterbalance to Iran are realizing the futility of their investments. In all cases Egypt is increasingly deteriorating under the weight of its own troubles and Washington has no ability to change that.
Is it time then for the United States to abandon Egypt? The answer is a resounding no. It is precisely because of Egypt’s movement towards the regional abyss that the United States needs to reinvest in the American-Egyptian relationship. Egypt is no longer a regional player but rather a playing field where local, regional and international powers are in competition over the country’s future. The country may no longer be a contestant for regional hegemony, but it is today the primary contested prize in a struggle over the region’s future. If the Westphalian order is to be defended in the Middle East amidst state collapse and the rise of Caliphate revivalist movements, this defense has to start with the most natural of the Arabic speaking states. With ninety two million people, a state collapse in Egypt would lead to a refugee crisis of historical proportions. No one wants a Somalia on the Nile, a Libya on Israel’s borders, or a Syria in control of the Suez Canal, the United States least of all.
But if this scenario is to be averted, the United States needs to adjust its policies accordingly. The United States should no longer base its policy on an Egypt that no longer exists. U.S. interests in Egypt are no longer maintaining the peace treaty or passage in the Suez Canal, but rather strengthening state institutions to make sure a regime collapse does not lead to a state collapse. Instead of focusing on military cooperation, the United States needs to develop a new partnership with Egypt that addresses the growing terrorist threat in the country, the collapse of the rule of law, the failed economic policies, the educational vacuum, and the growing sectarian hatreds that threatens the fate of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
In 1982, while describing Egypt’s diminishing role in the Middle East, Fouad Ajami, who had fallen in love with the land of the Pharaohs wrote “Of Egypt’s performance – sometimes a desperate trapeze act – other Arabs have been and remain fixated, applauding at times, full of derision at other times.” Thirty years later, and despite its continued decline, he would repeat the same sentiment, “Egypt may have lost the luster of old, but this Arab Time shall be judged by what eventually happens there.” This native son of the land has to concur.