The hopes of the Arab Spring were short-lived in Egypt, as the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood moved to implement total rule, sectarianism rose, economic and security conditions deteriorated, and the failures of civic republicanism and non-Islamist currents became evident.
Since the 2013 military coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, and despite the vows of Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s military regime to reverse the country’s decline and shore up its crumbling state institutions, the situation inside Egypt has continued to deteriorate.
Although Egypt appears to have returned to its pre-2011 state, the revolution and its bloody aftermath have transformed the country in far-reaching ways. An unprecedented growth in conspiracy theories regarding nefarious U.S. plots against Egypt is having a significant impact on the country’s politics.
In Sisi’s calculus, Hosni Mubarak’s big mistake was bowing to American pressure and not clamping down on free expression and civil society. Sisi has since removed legal and procedural constraints on security agencies, giving them virtually free rein to protect the country from internal threats as they see fit.
The Egyptian military’s controlling position in government and society has likewise compromised its reputation as an impartial actor defending the nation’s interests.
The decay of state institutions continues apace, leaving the country’s leaders with few mechanisms to confront growing challenges, including a rolling economic and sectarian crisis. On its current path, Egypt, a country of ninety-four million, is at growing risk of becoming a failed state.
The old basis for the U.S.-Egyptian alliance no longer exists. As an external power, Egypt is a shadow of its former self, and there are well-founded doubts about its capacity to play a leading and constructive role in regional affairs even if it wanted to.
Instead, Egypt itself has increasingly become a locus of the region’s unfolding strategic competition and the political and ideological crisis of the faltering state-based order.
The deepening mistrust between Cairo and Washington presents a major obstacle to any real cooperation. The weakness of the American-Egyptian alliance largely stems from Washington’s failure to cultivate a dependable constituency in Egypt with shared interests and principles. Thus, at this time of crisis, few in Egypt have defended the central importance of an alliance with America.
In the absence of a serious U.S. diplomatic strategy for Egypt, the two countries will continue to drift apart, and Egypt’s decline will likely accelerate, leaving the nation more vulnerable to the forces of regional disorder and chaos.
Key Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers
Any U.S. effort to renew its alliance with Egypt should not follow the twentieth-century framework of a principally military partnership based on now-outdated understandings of Egypt or the region at-large. Instead, restoration of the alliance requires clarity about Egypt’s rapidly deteriorating predicament and assistance to help the country deal with it.
This requires an American shift, from a primarily threat-centric approach to alliance-building and maintenance that is focused on military cooperation and building the capacity of Egypt’s security forces, to a more population-centric approach focused on long-term partnerships with Egyptian political actors and aimed at resolving the governance and ideological crises they face.
The U.S. must not shrink from its commitments to civic republicanism and human rights, but without addressing the faltering state, it will not be possible to create a more just and stable political order.
As a practical matter, the U.S. embassy in Cairo, America’s second-largest in the Middle East, along with other agencies, should be empowered with the strategic mission, new capabilities and expertise, and resources to develop a whole-of-country approach to contesting U.S. adversaries and identifying opportunities and political strategies that enjoy broad Egyptian support for addressing Egypt’s problems.
Countering Anti-American Conspiracy Theories and Hostile Foreign Powers
The U.S. should insist that for a healthy bilateral relationship, President Sisi must publicly repudiate the anti-American conspiracy theories rampant in the country. Despite billions of dollars in aid to Cairo spanning decades, no major official in the public eye has defended the relationship and its benefits to Egypt at this time of crisis. It is important for Cairo to make the case that such a friendship is important to the Egyptian people and to repudiate conspiracy theories—especially those propagated by the Sisi regime itself—that claim there is American ill will toward Egypt.
The U.S. should penalize Egyptians who deliberately create and propagate anti-American conspiracy theories. For example, Washington could make perpetrators ineligible to participate in American-Egyptian exchange programs, receive funding from the U.S. government, or receive visas to visit the U.S.
The United States needs to establish a fact-based news outlet and develop better methods of providing existing outlets with fact-based content. The Egyptian media market suffers from a real vacuum in fact-based reporting that provides accurate information regarding international, regional, and local developments.
Additionally, Russia and Iran have established widely followed news outlets in Egypt that air a constant anti-American message. Public diplomacy programs at the U.S. embassy in Cairo can provide Egyptian publications with information regarding stories they have published and generate favorable coverage, and can also reach out directly to the Egyptian people through social media posts or short online videos to debunk incorrect information.
To reach out to Egyptian society, the U.S. embassy should engage with organizations such as trade unions, farmers, and professional syndicates. Moreover, special emphasis should be placed on going beyond Cairo and reaching out to Egypt’s other governorates to create supporters who understand the importance of the American-Egyptian alliance and are willing to defend it publicly.
The U.S. must challenge Moscow’s propaganda inside Egypt, which depicts Russia’s modern development as a success while concealing the many unsavory details of living in Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. Past association with the Soviet Union did not help Egypt, which nearly ceded sovereignty to Moscow. Egypt’s national pride did not accept this in the past, and neither should it today.
The U.S. needs to rethink and expand its longstanding educational mission in Egypt to address the country’s educational deficit and decaying state institutions. In addition to working with Egyptian partners to expand opportunities in each governorate, the U.S. should support Egyptian efforts to reform the educational curriculum through a cross-disciplinary approach that instills civic republican principles. This is essential for winning the struggle of ideas with Islamism, establishing civic peace, and fostering progress.
The U.S. should encourage Egypt to integrate Al-Azhar’s parallel education system into the state system to standardize the curriculum and eliminate resource disparities between the schools. Likewise, the U.S. should work with the Ministry of Higher Education in revising the teacher’s college curriculum and introducing new ideas and pedagogical techniques.
Promoting Civic Republicanism
Egypt is once again caught in a vicious circle between authoritarianism and the threat of Islamist insurgency, with no end in sight. Overcoming social and political fractures will be crucial to helping Egypt avert the same fate as other countries in the region.
The U.S. should work with existing networks that are fostering reconciliation at the municipal level and seek to build on these efforts as part of its overall strategy to foster a new national compact. It should also contrast the success of pluralistic societies in the region, such as Morocco, with Egypt’s failing efforts to defend an illusory ethno-religious homogeneity.
The U.S. must extract a commitment from Egypt to protect its Coptic citizens and roll back policies that discriminate against Copts. This should not be framed as a religious freedom question, but rather as a central issue for Egypt’s viability as a nation and for its future.
Just as the U.S. invites thousands of Egyptians to come to America on exchange programs, it should pursue reverse programs in which Egyptian-Americans bring their experience back to Egypt. The U.S. needs to engage the Egyptian diaspora in America and other Western countries. Egyptian-Americans have unique knowledge of their former country, and many of them remain deeply connected to it through relatives. The Egyptian diaspora in the West has developed civic values, including hard work and personal social responsibility, and the United States should open avenues for these experiences and values to be transferred back to Egypt.
In revising its economic mission in Egypt, the U.S. must understand that Egypt’s economic woes have never been caused by the absence of money but by the misallocation of funds, poor governance, corruption, and the lack of the rule of law.
To help Egypt create a civil economy, the United States should expand its economic mission to engage a wider spectrum of businesses and sectors, including small business associations and new organizations, such as Rise Egypt, which focus on encouraging entrepreneurship.
The United States should devote special attention to bureaucratic reforms and to expanding the banking system, which has an extremely low participation rate. These are major hurdles for small businesses and for developing entrepreneurship.
In its economic and development aid to Egypt, the United States should develop a local approach that rewards governorates and municipalities based on metrics related to good governance and equal opportunities for all citizens.
The United States should encourage and de-risk U.S. business involvement in areas that are pursuing promising reforms. Even in Cairo’s poorest districts, popularly elected members of Parliament have succeeded in building a new model of politics and development that discourages patronage and rent-seeking through better governance and private-public partnerships.
The U.S. should work with the Egyptian military to decrease the military’s involvement in state institutions and the national economy. The Egyptian military believes it has a national duty to reinforce the state’s crumbling institutions and prevent the collapse of the country. However, such involvement creates a non-competitive environment in which the military’s structural advantages impede healthy economic development. This situation is damaging the military and, more important, damaging the country.
While the Egyptian military sees the Pentagon as its best ally in Washington, the bilateral military channel has not been effectively utilized by the United States. U.S. representatives should stress that while they understand the military’s desire to serve military personnel and protect them from the impact of inflation, its involvement in construction and commercial projects is not in the nation’s long-term interest.
A realistic discussion about the strategic rationale for twenty-first century U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation is also needed. Many Americans have indicated a desire to see Egypt lead through creation of an “Arab NATO” force that can serve, among other things, to check Iranian expansionism. But balance-of-power and realpolitik calculations will not mesh well with a Middle East made up of poorly formed states ruled by regimes whose main goals are not, or may not always be, stability and order.
Instead, the U.S. should work with its partners in the Egyptian military and build the key capabilities that they need to conduct complex political-military and intelligence operations based on the rule of law.
The U.S. should reexamine military training and exchange programs that bring Egyptian officers to the United States. More effort should be made to engage lower- and middle-ranking officers in non-combat educational programs.
The U.S. should offer assistance to Egyptian police and domestic security forces, which are ill-equipped to deal with sectarian mob violence. The United States should aid in establishing, training, and equipping special units tasked with confronting mob violence.