How much recent events have eroded U.S. security interests in Egypt depends on how deeply rooted those interests were in the first place. Although the Mubarak government did some things we wanted it to do, it did other things that were anathema. Mubarak, with U.S. complicity and Israeli acquiescence, fed the growth of a military that could be used for good or ill while he fed the Egyptian people lies about Israel, about war, about Jews and about peace. In the bigger picture, Egypt always saw itself with Arab and Sunni and larger Muslim responsibilities as well as responsibilities to its non-Muslim patron, whether the U.S. or Russia before it.
The smart bet was never on Egypt as an actual ally – which presumes a certain fundamental alignment – but on the understanding that things would be worse if Mubarak weren’t there. The now-complete demise of military structure embodied in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – America’s erstwhile ally – was utterly predictable.
In March, Secretary Clinton handed over $1.25 billion to the SCAF in defiance of Democratic Sen. Leahy’s “hold” on the money pending “democratic reforms.” Thus emboldened, the SCAF amended the 1971 constitution to deprive the incoming president of, among other things, the right to declare war. While the State Department publicly demanded complete civilian rule, it was privately relieved to think that the military body in which the U.S. had invested so much money, training and technology would still hold the power of the peace treaty with Israel.
Relief was short-lived. After the terrorist attack in Sinai that killed 16 Egyptians before moving on to Israel, President Morsi channeled Rahm Emanuel and effectively fired the entire leadership of the SCAF. This week, without a murmur of dissent, the Egyptian government restored the right to declare war to the president with the concurrence of Parliament.
The dregs of the SCAF may or may not be asked for an opinion. The President may or may not consult with the revived National Defense Council, which consists of government officials including parliamentarians, ministers and representatives of branches of the military, and meets at the request of the President. In any event, the “representatives of branches of the military” are younger, more Islamist-leaning officers who were not part of the SCAF. They know the lucrative, U.S.-funded military/industrial complex that enriched Sadat, Mubarak, Suleiman and Tantawi won’t be there for them.
The case looks cut and dried – our friends are out; others are in; we lose. Sure enough, President Morsi went to Iran and earlier this week, Egypt declined a U.S. request that an Iranian ship passing through the Suez Canal be inspected for illegal arms. But neither is a new position – they are the evolution of Egyptian, not Muslim Brotherhood, positions.
In April 2011, two Iranian military vessels passed through the Canal under the eyes of the provisional government, which claimed it could not stop a ship from a country with which it was not at war. As I wrote at the time: “[There is] the possibility of Egyptian complicity… this was the first Iranian military passage through the Suez Canal since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 because Egypt has considered Iran to be hostile. Egypt is, in any event, bound by the Security Council to ensure that passing ships comply with the terms of the embargo. According to some reports, the two Iranian naval ships were ‘routinely’ inspected by Egyptian authorities; according to others, Iranian diplomats simply ‘assured’ the Egyptians the ships were not carrying weapons. If the Egyptians did not actually inspect the ship’s cargo, they were snookered. If inspectors checked, found the weapons but still authorized the passage, then an entirely new challenge to sanctions enforcement may be emerging. It is not reasonable to think the inspectors checked and didn’t see the weapons.”
The two ships were later stopped and boarded by the Israeli Navy, and 50 tons of weapons – including Chinese C-704 anti-ship missiles and radars – were impounded. If the administration was surprised, it shouldn’t have been. A decade ago I wrote for JINSA:
“The U.S. cannot continue to support dictatorial regimes with no internal legitimacy and whose populations revile us in part because we support the dictatorship. At some point those dictatorships will fall – because, as the President so rightly said, the U.S. will work to establish freedom, liberty and tolerance around the world, and the Arab and Islamic world isn’t exempt. When they fall, we want to be on the side of the people.
“While we are propping up dictatorships of limited utility and limited viability, the United States should be VERY CAREFUL not to do anything with long-term dangerous ramifications for itself or its allies, specifically in this case Israel. Selling Egypt high-tech military equipment and overlooking Egypt’s relationship with A-E (Axis of Evil) member North Korea could result in that equipment falling into the hands of a future Egyptian government even less friendly to the U.S. and Israel than the current one. Harpoon Block II missiles could threaten U.S. carriers in the Med or Red Sea, MLRS could be used against Israel if Egypt crosses the Suez Canal (particularly if the U.S. withdraws the multinational forces in the Sinai), and the artillery rockets won’t be used against Saddam, but more likely against Israel.”
So in 2012, Egypt has indeed crossed forces into the Sinai, ostensibly to root out “jihadis” who threaten both Egypt and Israel. The immediate U.S. response was to offer the Egyptian military additional support in that role, suggesting that the MFO could slip out of its traditional posture as “observer” of the terms of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty into alliance with Egypt against the new threat. Egypt overstepped Israeli goodwill, however, by sending tanks and anti-aircraft guns – neither very useful in jihadi-hunting – and with the Israeli protest, Egypt changed course. Ha’aretz reports the Egyptian government is using Salafists and “former jihadists” to “negotiate” a new level of quiet in the Sinai with the current jihadists that will protect Egyptian interests, meaning local Sinai tribesmen will not attack the Egyptian military. Protecting Israeli interests? Not so important.
President Morsi’s visit to Iran (and then to China) highlights his desire not to appear aligned with the U.S. or U.S. interests. He’s not necessarily aligning with Iranian, Shi’ite, apocalyptic interests either, but he is continuing the evolution toward an Egyptian definition of Egyptian interests that began with the decline of Hosni Mubarak and that promises to hasten the decline of American influence.