Egypt and America Are Destined to Disappoint Each Other
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s supporters in Washington are about to get mugged by reality: His regime is alarmingly weak.
Updated on April 3 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Donald Trump hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Monday at the White House. I predict this will be the high-water mark of U.S.-Egyptian relations in the Trump years, because there is no way either party will meet the high expectations of the other going forward.
On the one hand, this warming of relations between the United States and Egypt is overdue. The bipartisan think tank consensus in Washington on Egypt is that America has, for far too long, coddled Egypt and needs to cut ties with the Sisi regime. I just don’t see how that serves U.S. interests, though: The United States needs good relations with Egypt so long as Egypt remains the Arab world’s most populous country, sitting astride the key waterways and air routes necessary for the flow of commerce and military power into the region and remaining a counterparty to the peace deal with Israel. Relations between Egypt and the United States, moreover, had already begun to thaw in the last year of the Obama administration—but were never going to fully recover from the events of 2013, when Sisi and the rest of the military leadership seized power from the democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt’s generals will forever claim they did not overthrow the government but instead responded to the will of the people in the streets, who had grown disenchanted with the Morsi government. There is a lot of truth in this narrative, as self-interested as it may be: The Muslim Brotherhood was a disaster in power, and the Egyptian people—having discovered the power of mass popular protest two years earlier—were indeed demanding a change.
But from the perspective of the Obama administration, it sure looked like a military coup, even if we never called it that. The Rabaa massacre in August, in which several hundred protesters were killed by Egyptian security forces, made matters worse. (By dumb and poor luck, the Egypt desk officer at the Department of Defense took the second half of the summer of 2013 off to get married, and I covered for her for much of that time while serving on a fellowship at the Pentagon. So I had front-row seats that fateful summer to the debates within the Obama administration about what to do in Egypt.)
The relations between the Obama administration and the Sisi regime never really recovered, even if we did resume military sales to Egypt a few years later around the same time I returned to government service. But for pragmatic reasons, the United States could not go on ignoring Egypt.
On the other hand, the Americans and Egyptians are destined to disappoint each other in the end.
On the American side, some voices within the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress view Sisi and his regime as a bulwark against Islamists in the region. Some of these same voices—most notably senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, I am told—scuttled the nomination of Anne Patterson to be the undersecretary of defense for policy. Patterson was a legendary diplomat who exhibited great skill and physical courage while serving as ambassador to Egypt during a tumult-filled era, after having served with similar distinction in Pakistan and Colombia. To Sisi’s supporters in Egypt and the United States, however, she might as well be the founding member of the Muslim Sisterhood for the way in which she spoke up for democratic processes while serving as the representative of the Obama administration in Cairo.
Regardless, Sisi’s supporters in Washington are about to get mugged by reality: Sisi’s regime is very, very weak. Alarmingly weak. It is heavily dependent on largesse from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates just to keep its accounts current, and it has not only failed to contain an insurgency in the Sinai, it has—much more importantly—failed to address the economic hole in which Egypt finds itself. Like many military men who ascend to power, Sisi does not have a political machine that can impose his will on the vast Egyptian bureaucracy. Even if he wanted to reform the state bureaucracy of Egypt, it is not clear he would have the means to do so. Sisi, in other words, projects strength outwardly but is in fact a very weak leader.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because that also describes the man Sisi will meet at the White House. Trump himself has been as flummoxed by the levers of government power as Sisi. His government agenda has been captured by dogmatic conservatives in ways that betray his campaign’s message to working class voters, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his budget, which slashes discretionary spending.
The draft Trump budget weakens the Department of State’s ability to administer military and economic aid—both of which predominantly come from the Department of State, not the Department of Defense, and both of which Egypt will ask for more of. The pot of money from which the Department of State distributes foreign military financing, or FMF, is shrinking, not growing—and there is less money available after 2017, when Israel will begin receiving more funds consistent with the recently negotiated 10-year Memorandum of Understanding. The Trump administration could always increase FMF, but that would require the kind of legislative strategy Trump has proven unable to create and execute.
So Donald Trump will say all the right things to Sisi today, and Sisi’s visit will be greeted ecstatically by the Egyptian media, but Trump will have very few ways to actually help Egypt. The one thing the Trump administration can do is restore cash flow financing to Egypt, which enables Egypt to purchase big-ticket weapons systems by allowing it to spend against FMF Egypt will receive in the future. If this seems like really “small ball” stuff, it is, but the restoration of cash flow financing is a top priority for Egypt’s military because of the many jobs FMF enables in the Egyptian arms industry. The problem for the Trump administration is that it also makes FMF less responsive to the needs of Egypt: facing an insurgency and think Egypt should buy mine-resistant personnel carriers? Well, too bad, because the funds for FY18 and FY19 are already committed to buying more F-16s or whatever.
It’s not all bad news, though. The Egyptian military labors mightily in the Sinai—against an insurgency that predates the ascension of Sisi (or Morsi). That military is learning, and we are seeing a group of smart Egyptian general officers emerge from that conflict eager to deepen military and intelligence cooperation with the United States. This is a big change: Previously Egypt’s military preferred to accept U.S. funds but keep the U.S. military at arm’s length. Now Egypt is beginning to see the utility of cooperation, and I very much enjoyed working with my Egyptian counterparts during my last stint at the Department of Defense.
And Egypt has escaped, for now, the violent tumult elsewhere in the region. Robert Kagan and Michelle Dunne wrote in The Washington Post Monday that Sisi’s “brutal repression has made Egypt a mass-production facility for violent extremism,” but that seems like gross hyperbole at best. Considering Egypt’s massive population, it’s more notable how few terror incidents take place in Egypt outside the Sinai and how few foreign fighters Egypt has sent to Iraq and Syria relative to its Arab neighbors. By contrast, Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story and a country one-tenth the size of Egypt, has produced perhaps 10 times as many foreign fighters. Even the increasing violence in the Sinai surely has less to do with Sisi and more to do with the transfer of weapons, fighters, and tactics from other Islamic State outposts such as Syria and neighboring Libya.
Egypt’s respite will not last forever, though. A collapsing economy could lead to state failure on a scale as yet unseen elsewhere in the region. President Sisi knows this and comes to Washington grasping for a lifeline from the Americans. It’s a lifeline, though, that the Trump administration is unlikely—and unable—to give.
Update: I’ve been writing back and forth with a friend on Tom Cotton’s staff who stressed that Senator Cotton’s reservations about Anne Patterson had more to do with the senator's discomfort with her lack of defense policy experience than her Obama-era diplomacy with the Muslim Brotherhood. He pointed me to a statement in this Politico article (which, for what it’s worth, also reported the Muslim Brotherhood issue being Cotton’s objection to Patterson):
“Ultimately, he got no assurances that she possesses the know-how to write strategic defense plans that combatant commanders would ultimately have to implement. He feels that the Pentagon should be focused on our obligation to build a GOP bench of national security.”
If this was the reason Senator Cotton objected to Patterson as the undersecretary for policy, I have issues with that as well, and would note that two previous career ambassadors—Eric Edelman under Bush, and Frank Wisner under Clinton—ably served in the role despite similar backgrounds to that of Patterson. But addressing this subject—and the role of civilians in the Pentagon more broadly—will be another column.