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Divorce, maybe?/Abdel-Moneim Said

Published by admin on 2013/11/13 (3929 reads)

US-Egyptian relations are on the rocks, or close, but not for the first time, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

In the past few days, I read the immensely enjoyable memoirs of Saadeddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian political sociologist who, among other things, is professor at the American University in Cairo and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies.
Ibrahim’s book reminded me of something that took place in February 1981. During a seminar on Egyptian-American relations, which was organised by the American Enterprise Project, Ibrahim submitted a light-hearted paper that seemed to explain what was happening in bilateral ties at the time. In many ways, the ideas he presented in this paper still seem applicable today.
Drawing parallels between international relations and human relations, Ibrahim argued that both types of relations begin with courtship, a phase in which both sides get curious about each other, and seem eager to learn more about one another’s potentials and persuasions.
Courtship involves an exploration of mutual interests, compatibilities, obstacles and various external obligations, with each side gauging and monitoring the consequences of a longer-term rapport.
If the assessment both reach is positive, the couple may enter into a more formal arrangement, or engagement, during which they would spell out their hopes for the future and dream of all the things they can accomplish together.
In the honeymoon following a successful engagement, the couple would look almost harmonious in their needs and desires, proud of their association, and secure in their mutual give-and-take.
But, in international relations just as in marriage, happiness is an elusive notion. At one point, family quarrels may ensue, when the couple, now aware of the failings of one another, become too demanding — or aloof. If the fights turn acrimonious, or become more frequent, divorce may be the only way out.
Applied to Egyptian-US relations, Ibrahim’s theory was a good fit. In 1981, a new administration was being formed in Washington under conservative Republican president Ronald Reagan.
The period of courtship that had taken place in the aftermath of the 1973 war, when “my friend Kissinger”, as Anwar Al-Sadat would call him, used to visit Cairo all too frequently, had run its course.
In the Jimmy Carter years, Washington and Cairo hammered out the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, starting a honeymoon that the Reagan administration brought to an abrupt ending.
Reagan didn’t seem to appreciate the strategic importance of the Middle East, at least not in the manner his predecessors — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Carter — did.
When one thinks back to the 1952 Revolution, a similar pattern also emerges. The period between 1952 and 1956 saw a courtship proceeding smoothly for a while, until shattered by Washington’s refusal to finance Egypt’s High Dam.
The Eisenhower Doctrine and the 1958 conflict in Lebanon resonated with the acrimony of divorce, with tensions only defused when the Kennedy administration started a new courtship of its own. But there was no honeymoon this time, and the international couple went their separate ways with the 1967 war.
In the 1980s, a new cycle of courtship began. Egypt, having managed to return to the Arab fold, became too important for Washington to ignore. And although Cairo never completely warmed up to Reagan, it was not going to snub America’s $1.3 billion in military aid and $815 million in economic aid.
Relations between the two countries continued to be somewhat lukewarm until they suddenly warmed again with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The honeymoon that followed lasted throughout the 1990s. Not only was Kuwait liberated, but also peace talks produced a Jordan-Israel peace treaty. The Oslo Accords reinforced a dream of romance that seemed to strain the imagination.
Egypt, especially Sharm El-Sheikh, became a centre for negotiations and political marriage counselling. The outcome was not always satisfactory, and Cairo had a falling out with Washington on occasion, as in the fight over Israel’s nuclear weapons in the mid 1990s. But generally speaking, the final decade of the last century was one of close Egyptian-US ties.
Again, the smooth sailing of the 1990s was not destined to last.
When George W Bush took office, Cairo — which had a good rapport with his father — felt that things were moving in the right direction. The optimism proved to be premature.
Not only was the new US president given to recklessness, but his coterie of conservative associates, also known as the neocons, were nothing short of loose cannons.
The tragic attacks of 9/11 triggered a devastating course of events that culminated in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly, all Arab countries — especially Egypt — were being blamed for the horrors of terrorism. In Washington, the mainstream creed was that the lack of democracy in the Middle East was the source of all terrorist evils.
In the first term of Bush Jr, relations deteriorated over the second Palestinian Intifada, US policies in Iraq and US conduct throughout the Islamic world.
Egypt, needless to say, had suffered from terrorism like anyone else. But when the US tried to fight terror in ways that antagonised major countries around the region, the future of relations looked sombre.
The second term of Bush Jr wasn’t much better, which is exactly why Cairo was so ebullient when Barack Obama came into office.
But those who were hoping that the Democratic-led administration would iron out the wrinkles left behind by the Republicans soon became disappointed.
Under Bush Jr, Egypt was criticised by a cabal of conservatives for not being democratic enough.
Under Obama, Egypt was criticised by a cabal of liberals who think that democracy is impossible in Egypt unless the Muslim Brotherhood — booted out of power by the 30 June Revolution — run the country.
Suing for divorce, America reduced some aid and froze some, shattering any romantic hopes for the future.
What remains now of Egyptian-US relations is a trickle of aid and some phone calls between defence ministers.
It is not a divorce for now. But in time, and in the absence of intensive couple therapy, it will be

Al-Ahram weekly

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