The Egypt-U.S. Breakup: It's Not You, It's Me

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After decades of partnership, is Cairo serving us with divorce papers?

Egypt Feb6 p.jpg

Hosni Mubarak and Barack Obama in the White House in 2010 / AP

Egypt's former ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, once remarked that the U.S.-Egypt relationship was like "a mature marriage."  It seems that with the trial of 19 Americans and 16 Egyptians and 8 others affiliated with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the Egyptians are serving divorce papers.  The last four decades have had many highs and quite a  few lows, but now it is time to move on.  What was once a strategic relationship built on the firm geo-strategic foundations of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East, forging peace between Arabs and Israelis, and helping to ensure the stability of the region is now an unhealthy codependency with no strategic rationale or direction.

The January 25th uprising was bound to alter U.S.-Egypt relations in fundamental ways if only because public sentiment matters more in the new Egypt and Washington is far from popular.  Yet events of the last few weeks suggest that the trajectory of the relationship is in steeper decline than anyone expected.  The NGO case is wrapped up in layers of resentment relating to Egypt's history of foreign domination, Egyptian nationalism, and Washington's determination to spend  part of its aid package on programs that support democratic change.  In the psycho-drama that bilateral relations have become, both the Egyptians and Americans want U.S. assistance to continue to flow, but for all the wrong reasons. The aid is good for Egypt's leaders because it provides them with an opportunity to position themselves as good nationalists even though they have been feeding at the trough of international aid for many years.  For Washington, the aid is the only leverage the United States has to try to influence Egyptian behavior and even though it doesn't seem to work, lawmakers and officials are loath to give it up.

The Egyptian government in the form of Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, rails against American funding of non-governmental organizations, claiming that American money is going to groups that want to undermine the  Egyptian government.  In its crudest form, Naga's campaign against the United States, USAID, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and NGOs, suggests that a "foreign hand" is seeking to bring Egypt to its knees.  The claim seems laughable, especially since the same foreign hand doles out $1.3 billion a year to the Egyptian armed forces (word is that Aboul Naga is close to Field Marshal Tantawi) and Aboul Naga is supposed to be the Minister of International Cooperation.  If the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the transitional cabinet are truly interested in paving the way for a democratic Egypt, shouldn't they welcome Washington's help?  Yet as in all cases domestic politics trumps foreign policy and Aboul Naga and her military masters have a political interest in playing on the xenophobic tendencies in Egyptian society to undermine NGOs that are working toward a new, more democratic political order--precisely the opposite of what the SCAF wants.

I say we oblige Aboul Naga and wind down the aid program--including military assistance--as soon as practical.  It's hard to run against the "foreign hand" if there is no foreign hand.  In addition to undermining Aboul Naga's claims (and hopefully weakening her) bringing an end to the aid program and shutting down the USAID mission has multiple political benfits.  First, Washington will no longer be in the unseemly position of providing taxpayer largesse--however small in the grand scheme of things--to a government that resents the United States and clearly does not share its values.  Second, it will provide an opportunity for a much-needed change in military-to-military relations in which the United States merely pays for the services it needs like expedited transit through the Suez Canal.  Third, it is consistent with this moment of empowerment and dignity for Egyptians many of whom do not want U.S. assistance either because they believe it actually stands in the way of a democratic transition or accept Aboul Naga's argument along with those who couldn't care less about U.S. assistance because it doesn't touch their lives.  Finally, it will free up funds for the United States to help others who actually might want Washington's help, perhaps the Tunisians, Moroccans, or some sub-Saharan African countries would be grateful for development assistance.

Break-ups are hard.  The United States and Egypt will always have great memories--all the help Washington provided developing Egypt's infrastructure from sewerage and potable water to public health, the iconic photo of President Carter, President Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin shaking hands after signing the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm--but it is not enough to carry Cairo and Washington for the next three decades.  If there is a bit of healthy distance between the two countries, Egypt might regain some of its lost regional luster, Washington will not be an easy target to blame if the Egyptian transition falters, and the two countries could very well find their way back to each other not as strategic partners, but as respectful allies. Whatever the long-term outcome, Washington and Cairo need to release themselves from their mutual tribulations.  The relationship is outmoded as it is currently configured.  It's time to untangle ties before any more damage is done.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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