Less than 24 hours before an Egyptian criminal court handed down long prison terms to three Al Jazeera journalists, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood beside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri. Kerry spoke hopefully of resuming the two countries’ longstanding alliance in the wake of the rocky period that has followed the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
“We will work hard to augment what is a longstanding and deep partnership between the United States and Egypt, recognizing that we both have things to do that we can do better and that we both will work to do so,” Kerry said.
He reflected positively on his meetings Shukri and President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former defense minister who led the coup that ousted his predecessor, top Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader.
“I think we really found ourselves on a similar page of changes that have yet to be made, promises that have yet to be fulfilled, but of a serious sense of purpose and commitment by both of us to try to help achieve those goals,” Kerry said.
On Monday his tone could not have been more different.
“Today's verdicts fly in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press and the real rule of law,” Kerry said. “I call on [Sisi] to make clear, publicly, his government’s intention to observe Egypt’s commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press and the rule of law.”
Under the presidency of Mubarak, who ruled the country for three decades, that kind of pressure from the U.S., backed years of aid totaling tens of billions of dollars, might have prompted a response — a public hint at a pardon or maybe even an intervention. But in the new Egypt, American influence, or lack thereof, is yielding a different playbook.
“We will not interfere in judicial rulings,” Sisi said at the conclusion of a televised speech at a military graduation ceremony the following day. “We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them, even if others do not understand this.”
Sisi’s blunt public response to protests from Kerry and other Western leaders in the wake of the verdict reflected a new relationship between Egypt and countries that have long supported it.
These countries had provided financial and military aid in a deal intended to guarantee peace with Israel and a quiet front in the Middle East, but their influence now seems to have been surpassed by leaders in the Gulf who fear the Brotherhood and have little patience for Washington’s concerns about Egyptian democracy. In this new regional order, Sisi can risk spurning the West in a way Mubarak never could.
There was a time, in 2011, when the uprising against Mubarak seemed to present the possibility of a new balance of interests. Egypt would elevate human rights and wind down what many citizens saw as the United States’ cynical support of autocracy.
The 9/11 attacks woke many in Washington to the dangers of a policy of supporting stability at the expense of democracy and human rights in the Arab world, and the uprising seemed to present the possibility of a more democratic order that could achieve a more sustainable stability and progress in the region.
But in the chaotic and often bloody wrangling that followed, world powers — most notably the U.S. — failed to craft a new strategy. Instead, U.S. policy in Egypt rode the political roller coaster.
“The one consistent element of Washington’s approach has been to stay engaged with Egypt and work with whoever is in power,” wrote Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the uprising. “There’s a simple reason for that: The United States has strong interests in Egypt, no matter who is in charge of the country.”
Those interests, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the same ones that predated the uprising: priority access to the crucial Suez Canal, routine permission to use Egyptian airspace and a tight lid on jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula, among others. They reflect a relationship between Egypt and the United States that continues to hinge on the two countries’ militaries, in that arena that most analysts believe American leverage — if it still exists — could be applied.
Since the uprising, American thinkers, many of them former government officials, have debated whether and how to adjust U.S. policy toward Egypt. That debate crystallized last summer, when Sisi deposed Morsi after a wave of protests and oversaw a crackdown on his supporters that left more than 1,000 people killed, the Brotherhood banned and dissent effectively silenced. Sisi’s election, in early June, with more than 96 percent of the vote, was seen by many in the United States as the troubling coronation of a new strongman.
As Sisi coasted across the presidential finish line, a bipartisan group of American scholars called the Working Group on Egypt, many of whom have ties to government, wrote to President Barack Obama and urged him to “overhaul” U.S. policy toward Cairo.
“Unfortunately, there is no sign yet that President Sisi plans to adopt policies that will take the country off its current path of instability, and there is no evidence that the United States could persuade him to change course even if it restored all suspended aid,” they wrote.
The Working Group’s letter asked the core question, Does the United States retain any leverage that could influence the Egyptian government’s behavior, and does that leverage lie in military aid?