This post originally appeared on The American Interest on August 23rd.
During a visit to Cairo in late July, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised the relationship between newly elected President Mohamed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the longtime Defense Minister who had ruled Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power. Ten days ago, Morsi radically changed that relationship, announcing the retirement of Tantawi and several other senior military officials in a move that caught almost all observers, including the Obama Administration, by surprise.
Officials in Washington, however, quickly moved from confusion to praise for Morsi’s moves and for Tantawi’s successor, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, noting al-Sissi’s experience in and relationships with the United States.
The scramble in Washington highlights the difficulties the United States faces in navigating the brave new world of Egyptian politics. With a multiplicity of power sources, fresh political actors apt to do surprising things, and old certainties questioned or upended practically every day, Washington’s relationship with Cairo is being tested as never before.
In its search to make sense of Egypt today, the danger is that the United States will latch on to Morsi and his new Defense Minister the way Washington once dealt with Mubarak and Tantawi: as the go-to guys to protect American interests in everything from quiet military and counterterrorism cooperation to advancing the Middle East peace process. Taking this approach today would be a serious mistake, for both the health of the bilateral relationship and the stability of Egypt’s roughly emerging democracy.
Egypt today is much more than a two-man show. And that’s a good thing, as neither President Morsi nor al-Sissi are confirmed democrats. Despite early accolades from Washington, Morsi’s recent moves to muzzle the press and seize back from the generals sweeping powers to legislate and shape the constitution are causes for concern. While al-Sissi has told the Pentagon he planned to maintain strong military ties with the United States, he is better known on the streets of Cairo as the man who ordered the infamous “virginity tests” of female protesters last year in a transparent attempt to shame and intimidate them.
It’s also clear that Morsi is far less likely to play helpmeet to the United States on the international stage. His planned visit to Tehran at the end of August, a first for an Egyptian President since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, potentially marks an historic shift in Egypt’s foreign relations. Morsi’s endorsement of a contact group including Iran to effect a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict puts him at odds with the United States and its Gulf allies.
So without reverting to our traditional reliance on Egyptian strongmen, how should the United States approach the new Egypt?
First, bedrock principles should guide U.S. policy, and we need to be clear in public and in private what those principles are, stressing the importance of institutions versus personalities. The United States must stand firmly on the side of basic human rights, especially those of the most vulnerable, including women and religious minorities, and uphold freedom of the press, expression and association. It is particularly important that the United States press the Egyptian government to liberalize the environment for civil society and end its prosecution of international non-government organizations for their efforts to help Egyptians as they work toward democracy; investigations into domestic NGOs should also be ended. There must be rewards for advancing the political transition and real consequences for pushing it back.
The United States must also engage broader segments of Egyptian society and politics. The temptation is to pay too much attention to traditional political elites as well as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to consolidate power, but that is a mistake. The U.S. needs to reach out consistently to young activists and liberal and secular parties; however feckless they might seem now, their ideas on democracy and governance were the ideological underpinnings of the revolution against Mubarak and have been broadly, if tacitly, accepted by wide swaths of the Egyptian body politic, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They will continue to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.
The United States must engage the Egyptian government on a broader basis too. In the past, there has been a tendency to outsource much of our diplomacy to the Department of Defense and the uniformed military, whose frequent visits to Cairo far outnumbered those of the civilian side of the U.S. government. This resulted in a narrow, security-based vision of the relationship that forestalled a more expansive approach to Egypt. From now on, civilian cooperation and traditional diplomacy should form a much larger part of America’s engagement with Cairo.
Finally, the United States needs to undertake a wide-ranging policy review of the bilateral relationship, which has remained largely static in the 31 years since Mubarak came to power. This serves neither U.S. nor Egyptian interests. This is an opportunity to rethink the billions of dollars we have provided automatically to Egypt’s military for the past three decades and consider reprogramming much of that to support desperately needed political and economic reform. At a time of upheaval in the region, we should expect greater return on the money the U.S. taxpayer contributes in aid to Egypt.
This is a tall order for U.S. diplomacy. But it is essential to put the U.S.-Egyptian relationship back on a firm footing in a way that supports democracy and human rights and bolsters the stability Washington craves.