Argument

What Is Egypt?

As America's new secretary of state arrives in Cairo, it's still not clear the United States knows what it's dealing with.

When Secretary of State John Kerry sits down with Egyptian officials during his trip to Cairo this weekend, he will no doubt drag out an old talking point: The United States and Egypt, leaders from both countries are fond of saying, enjoy a "strategic relationship."

Yet for all the talk of common interests and close alignment, few can define what this actually means. President Barack Obama has worked hard to keep relations between Washington and Cairo on track as Egypt has lurched from one political crisis to another over the last two years -- but where exactly is that track supposed to be leading?

It is not at all clear that the president knows. When Hosni Mubarak visited Washington in 2009 after a five-year absence, Obama fell back on platitudes, praising the Egyptian dictator as "a leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States." The substance of ties were almost as empty as the words: Almost three years to the day later, Obama averred that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy.

If Egypt is not an ally and it is not an enemy, then what is it? No one knows. To get around the question, American officials have engaged in remarkably consistent circumlocution. In late 2004, as President George W. Bush's administration was ramping up its "forward-leaning strategy of freedom in the Middle East," a group of Washington-based journalists and think tankers asked a senior American official in Cairo to describe what the United States wanted in Egypt. He replied, "We want whatever Egyptians want."

Such a statement was disingenuous -- the Egyptian government at the time clearly did not want U.S. efforts to promote democracy, even if some of its citizens welcomed it. And what if Egyptians want to break the peace treaty with Israel? Or develop close ties with Iran? But more than that, given the impossibility of determining what the Egyptian people -- clearly not a monolithic group -- really want, it was essentially meaningless.

Fast forward to 2013, and Americans are still groping when it comes to Egypt. After a trip to the Middle East -- which did not include Egypt -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said that it would not be Washington that defined the future of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship: At a gathering at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Feb. 27, he noted the strength of ties was "up to the Egyptians."

This muddle did not always characterize U.S.-Egypt relations. Ever since the early 1950s, when Amb. Jefferson Caffery was cultivating Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has been a strategic prize for the United States. To cold warriors, Egypt's strategic position, the Suez Canal, and its political influence in the Arab world were valuable assets for containing the Soviet Union in the Eastern Mediterranean, and North and East Africa, and making sure the oil kept flowing from the Persian Gulf.

Caffery's efforts to woo Nasser came to naught, however, over congressional opposition to a large military aid package and Egyptian nationalist reservations about becoming a leading member of a new Western security system in the Middle East. Yet what didn't work out while President Dwight Eisenhower and Nasser were in power became reality under Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat. Cairo had grown weary of Moscow by the early 1970s, and Sadat had come to believe that only Washington could provide the resources Egypt needed in its ceaseless quest for modernization. The U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship was born.

A bulwark against the Soviets. The end of the state of war between Egypt and Israel, as embodied by Sadat's trip to Jerusalem. A key pillar of the Western security system in the Middle East. These are concepts belonging to an era that came to an end more than two decades ago, yet continue to serve as the foundations of U.S.-Egypt relations. They were outdated even before the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Washington could always tell itself that the aging autocrat was an asset because he kept the Suez Canal open, maintained the peace with Israel, and kept the Islamists down. But following the political turmoil of the past two years and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, that faulty logic is even clearer -- President Mohamed Morsy, after all, hasn't moved to overturn the regional political order or challenge the peace treaty with Israel.

As the Cold War has receded from memory, American policymakers have had a hard time articulating the rationale for an increasingly outmoded relationship. They have been left sputtering about "wanting what Egyptians want," or leaving well enough alone because the relationship "worked." In a narrow sense, it does -- but toward the end of the Mubarak era, it began to seem that a "strategic relationship" was just something American and Egyptian officials said publicly while they haggled over money. The military aid went to weapons systems that the Egyptians would either never use or had a hard time mastering, and the economic aid was too little to do much good against the vast backdrop of Egypt's economic struggles.

Muddle will not serve either country well. Inside the Beltway, there is an odd disconnect about Egypt. Among one group, there are officials who understand how much has changed in Egypt -- but nevertheless talk about doing business with Egypt as if it were 2010, or 1999, or 1989. It's all about aid and access to Egypt's airspace and the Suez Canal, which are byways to places of more intrinsic importance to the United States.

Still another group of policymakers -- in this case, members of Congress -- recognize the changes in Egypt and want to penalize it for straying from American interests. As one Capitol Hill insider described this one-dimensional view, the Muslim Brothers are Islamists and Islamists are terrorists, thus Egypt should not get aid from the United States. Everyone else, meanwhile, is simply stymied by the complexity of the "new Egypt" and are just hoping the country does not collapse under the weight of its mounting economic problems and surreal politics.

The problem with defining a strategy is that Washington is not much interested in Cairo. To be sure, policymakers and analysts discuss the importance of promoting democracy in Egypt, but American policy in the region is geared toward larger goals -- ensuring the flow of oil from the region, helping to protect Israel, and making sure no single country dominates the Middle East (other than, of course, the United States).

In other words, Egypt -- whether it is a democracy or not -- is a means to some other end. Washington is interested in Egyptian stability because it is interested in Saudi security, or the Iranian challenge, or Israel's well-being.

Now, as a new secretary of state prepares for his visit to post-Mubarak Egypt, there is hope for a renewal of ties. But once again, Americans are hard-pressed to articulate the underlying rationale for strategic alignment apart from the familiar formulations about peace and stability in the Middle East. Proposals to transform the relationship to "trade not aid" have never gotten much traction, and are hardly the bases for strategic ties. Likewise, explicit threats to cut aid in return for reform have had minimal impact on the trajectory of Egyptian politics.

Perhaps clarity of purpose in U.S. policy is impossible at a moment when Egyptian politics are so unsettled. It seems that sunk costs -- a total of around $75 billion since the mid-1970s -- bureaucratic inertia, and the fact that the Egyptians need the United States right now all account for the current loveless marriage.

It may just be that strategic alignment between Egypt and the United States represented a moment that has now passed. The U.S. investment in Cairo has brought benefits to Washington -- but now the best thing for the United States is not to try to mend the old strategic ties, but start anew. Obama got it right in May 2011 when he stated that Americans must look at what has happened in the Arab world with humility, but without abdicating their values. That means, in part, recognizing that Egyptians want a relationship not necessarily of equals -- that is impossible -- but one that is more respectful of the way they define their national interests.

This formulation quite rightly makes some Americans (and Israelis) nervous. But there's good news: Whatever comes to pass, Cairo is unlikely to align with Washington's enemies. Morsy's flirtations with Iran are about showing Egyptians that there is a difference between the Mubarak era and now. It is also about signaling to the Saudis that Cairo plans to be an influential player in the region. In the same way, the Egyptians have proven tougher on Hamas than many expected, refusing the organization's request to open an office in Cairo and flooding the tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza frontier, which have served as a critical Hamas supply line. And needless to say, the new Egypt still has no use for Hezbollah or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in Washington's approach to Cairo as a result of Kerry's visit. That is all right: Egypt is struggling with its own internal demons, and is in dire need of economic assistance. Yet when Kerry and Obama are not dealing with the Egyptian crisis of the moment, they will have accomplished much if they move U.S.-Egypt relations out from the straitjacket of outdated strategic ties to more normal relations, befitting the changes in Egypt and the region around it.

This requires that policymakers take the long view -- an alleged strength of the current administration -- and understand that a bit of distance between Washington and Cairo could be a good thing. And who knows, maybe some time apart will remind the two countries of why they got together in the first place.

Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

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