The limited news from Washington, D.C. Monday about the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Egyptian Field Marshal-turned-President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has been widely described as marking a historic turning point in United States-Egypt relations, following the coolness in ties during the President Barack Obama years. That strikes me as a pretty inaccurate assessment; rather I would see the warm expression of mutual admiration and close political-military ties between the two leaders as merely perpetuating and affirming the close American-Egyptian relations that have existed for decades.
Those relations have been called “strategic,” but for those willing to embrace reality they can also be called ineffective and counter-productive. Egypt is passing through a very difficult and delicate moment in its modern history, which has been manifested in multiple dimensions. Egypt is one of the very few Arab countries that do, indeed, have multiple dimensions—rather than the rule of one-dimensional lands characterized by simplistic economies, cultures, and capabilities.
For a century or so Egypt has been seen by foreign powers as a key to their Middle Eastern policies, interests, and relationships, due to the many genuinely strategic dimensions of Egypt. These include geography, economic bulk, military power, political impact and initiative, cultural and intellectual leadership of the Arab world, and the sort of national self-confidence that only emanates from a genuine nation-state’s assets, actions, and attitudes. For some half-a-century or so, nobody else in the Arab World could get close to Egypt in these realms, yet its dilemma today is that in every one of these realms Egypt has been steadily regressing. It continues to become more dependent on handouts from others, and is shedding those traits that make it a genuinely important and strategic partner for others.
Ever since President Anwar Sadat some thirty five years ago forged close strategic ties with Washington, both sides have benefited in various ways, and the momentum of the recent past has continuously shaped the policies of leaders in the West, who would not pressure Egypt too much on its terrible human rights record and autocratic ways, or push hard to help Egypt institute genuine domestic economic, social, and political reforms.
The result has been Egypt’s steady decline over the past four decades, as almost all of its key national institutions, other than the military and security services, have been hollowed out in stunning and shocking testament to why military leaders should not run countries with total abandon and a lack of accountability to their citizens. The return of military rule to Egypt, with El-Sisi’s ouster of the elected President Mohammad Morsi in July 2013, reflected a combination of forces in society that all deserved serious reappraisal by Egyptians, including the quality of their constitutional democracy, the performance of the Morsi government, and the emotional-political sentiments of the citizenry.
The option to bring the military back to power was genuinely appealing to many Egyptians, but it was the worst option. We can see the results of that today as the country desperately looks around to see which partner, friend, or neighbor can offer it two, five or ten billion dollars for the coming years, just to get it through the economic constraints that are a result of its own poor management of the economy and the state over many decades.
The main reason I say that U.S. policies towards Egypt have been a failure and counter-productive is that Egypt’s trajectory is likely to fuel new episodes of extremism, instability, and political violence, which already see homegrown extremist forces link up with partners in terror and crime across the region, such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). The most dangerous and systematic dynamic that creates an environment that in turn promotes extremism and terrorism is precisely what Egyptians have suffered for some years now—economic and political pressures, combined with poor education and social services standards, low job prospects, and a limited government capability to redress these, make it inevitable that some ordinary and poor Egyptians will slowly experience frustration, anger, helplessness, desperation, and, ultimately, radicalization. As hundreds of thousands or perhaps some millions of men and women, especially young people with no hope of a decent life, join forces with similarly dehumanized men and women across the Arab region, the result will be more of the same political violence, terrorism, and state fragmentation that we have witnessed in the past 20 years.
This is what happens when the world’s strongest power works closely with Arab authoritarian and autocratic leaderships for decades on end, while they ignore the conditions within Arab states that generate instability, dehumanization, and terrorism, and instead mutually praise each other’s courage and leadership in fighting terrorism and promoting national development. What happened at the White House Monday between Trump and El-Sisi, is a tragic and catastrophic harbinger of terrible days ahead for Egypt and much of the Arab World, where Egypt’s impact remains immense.Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global