I recently finished reading the memoirs of Dr. Saadeddine Ibrahim, professor of political sociology at the American University of Cairo, former president of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, former chief of the Arab Council for Childhood and Motherhood and of the Arab Thought Forum in Jordan, and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.
The man’s history includes a lot more achievements. Reading his memoirs reminded me of an incident that happened in February 1981, when a seminar was organized on Egyptian–American relations by the American Enterprise Institute. During this seminar, Ibrahim presented a document, the analytical model of which I think may be useful in understanding the current relationship between the two countries.
The model was based on comparing relations between countries with relations between people, particularly between men and women. Relationships pass through phases. This begins with courtship, during which time each party seeks to know the other’s limits and capabilities. This is where interest and psychological consensus is specified and where each person’s responsibilities are made clear. If things are positive, the couple takes the relationship to the next level—that is to say, engagement. This phase includes an amount of commitment that requires more disclosure. In addition to that, mutual ambitions that may reach the extent of dreams emerge. This phase is followed by marriage, accompanied by the honeymoon phase where it appears that the couple has become one in terms of vision and opinion. But since things change, it’s only a matter of time before the couple discover each other’s defects which were previously diminished. This causes small arguments that quickly turn to open quarrels, thus leading to divorce.
At the beginning of 1981, Saadeddine Ibrahim applied this model on American-Egyptian relations. Back then, a new administration led by Ronald Reagan, the Republican with the conservative vision, was born. The courtship phase began in the wake of the October 1973 War. Henry Kissinger, whom late President Anwar Sadat referred to as “my friend” became a permanent visitor to Cairo. After Kissinger, Jimmy Carter also became Sadat’s friend. The two parties cooperated to reach the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
The Egyptian-American connection paved the way for a honeymoon which Reagan’s administration ultimately ended short for several reasons. Perhaps the most important of these reasons is that Reagan no longer viewed the Middle East with the same importance as his predecessors (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.) Although this model is somewhat light-heated, it appears appropriate when it comes to understanding American-Egyptians relations, whether before or after 1981. Somehow, the relationship between Washington and Cairo passed through the precise same phases between 1952 and 1956.
During this time, there was optimism with the eruption of the July revolution followed by divorce when the proposal to help build the Aswan High Dam was withdrawn. Following this there was the Eisenhower project and the clash in Lebanon in 1958. The latter led to a divorce that lasted until Kennedy’s administration noticed the importance of rebuilding bridges. This was some form of courtship that ended in a clash following America’s withdrawal of the wheat aid shipments in 1965 and the severance of diplomatic ties with the eruption of the 1967 June War.
Reagan’s administration cut the Egyptian-American honeymoon short. The 1980s witnessed many diplomatic scuffles and arguments, but relations lasted due to Egypt’s political and diplomatic activity. This period also saw Egyptian-Soviet relations being restored, in addition to American aid to Egypt, which at that time reached USD 1.3 billion in military aid and USD 815 million in economic aid. In any case, the US-Egyptian relationship endured but turned somewhat cold. The situation remained like this until the time came to restore this to previous levels. That moment was when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Amidst this flagrant threat against the region’s security, Egyptian-American relations were ready for a new honeymoon that lasted throughout the entire 1990s. During this period, Kuwait was liberated, the Arab-Israeli peace process began and produced the Jordanian-Israeli peace and the Oslo Accords. Egypt, and particularly Sharm Al-Sheikh, was a center for negotiating and dealing with crises and obstacles. Egypt was also a passage for American forces in the East. Were it not for the argument over Israeli nuclear weapons during the mid-1990s, this decade would have been characterized by the closest relations between Cairo and Washington.
It’s always difficult to determine the exact time when relations began to deteriorate. As the new century began, Egypt first thought that the George W. Bush administration would be the same as the Bush senior administration. But that did not prove to be the case. The new president was not just thoughtless he was also surrounded by a group of obsessed neo-conservatives. The 9/11 attacks ignited a wave of new aggression in America’s approach. This can be seen in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and accusing Arab countries, particularly Egypt, of being responsible for terrorism due to a lack of democracy.
During the last phase of the Bush administration, relations reached their nadir over the second Palestinian intifada and the American behavior towards Iraq and the Islamic world. Egypt has suffered at the hands of terrorism, like all other countries, but the American approach of dealing with this phenomenon is based on a twisted methodology that has produced poor results.
Bush’s second presidential term failed to soothe relations between Cairo and Washington, and it appeared as though Barack Obama’s presidency could pave way for a new era of relations.
What’s strange is that Cairo, during George Bush’s presidential term, was subject to right-wing’s criticism because it was considered undemocratic. But now during the Obama era, the criticism comes from the left-wing which believes that democracy will not exist in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, except via the Muslim Brotherhood. This logic is crooked and the movement collapsed after the June revolution. America subsequently filed for divorce after it suspended aid. What’s left is a thin line of aid and sporadic phone calls between Egypt and America’s ministers of defense. The current relations are thus in a phase of separation and divorce is usually the natural result of a separation that lasts for an extended period.