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Back to the future?

Spencer KimballJune 8, 2014

With ex-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sworn in as Egypt's president, Washington has promised that it will cooperate with his government. Are US-Egyptian ties returning to the Mubarak-era status quo of military rule?

Ägypten Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Präsidentenwahl Bekanntgabe der offiziellen Ergebnisse 03.06.2014
Image: Reuters

More than three years ago, US President Barack Obama withdrew Washington's long-standing support for Hosni Mubarak, accelerating the former air force marshal's overthrow by mass demonstrations. Today, the White House is cooperating with Egypt's latest military-commander-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in what some analysts say is a return to the old status quo of US support for military rule.

"The United States looks forward to working with [Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi], the winner of Egypt's presidential election, to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt," the White House said in a news release.

The Obama administration also expressed concern about the restrictive political environment in which the elections took place, calling on el-Sissi to adopt political reforms that would fulfill the "democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people."

But in his May 28 foreign policy speech, President Obama made clear that US-Egyptian relations are primarily rooted in national security interests, not democracy promotion.

US President Obama walks past saluting cadets at West Point
Obama has made no bones about US security interests in EgyptImage: Reuters

"In countries like Egypt, we acknowledged that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties with Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism," Obama told the West Point Military Academy's graduating class.

"So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but we can and will persistently push for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded," the president continued.

Security trumps democracy

According to Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt expert with the Atlantic Council, the White House has adopted a pragmatic approach in its relations with post-Mubarak Cairo. Hawthorne said that the Obama administration would prefer to deal with a democratic government. But with the political situation in Egypt unpredictable, Washington fears a complete break in its ties with Cairo, which could jeopardize its core security interests in the peace treaty with Israel and counterterrorism cooperation.

"This administration does not believe that the US has very much ability to influence or shape Egyptian domestic politics," Hawthorne told DW.

"And given a choice between maintaining relations and taking such a strong stance that ties might be ruptured, the US is going to choose working with the Egyptian government and continuing the relations," she said.

Hawthorne believes that the White House's Egypt policy does differ from the Mubarak era in important respects. She said that although the Obama administration is willing to work with el-Sissi on a narrow set of security issues, it is not willing to protect him from the will of the Egyptian people, as Washington protected Mubarak for decades.

'Business as usual'

But Emad Shahin, an expert on Egyptian politics at the American University in Cairo, said that current US policy is worse than during the Mubarak era. According to Shahin, although Mubarak was an autocrat, he originally came to power through a legal succession of power after the assasination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

In the case of el-Sissi, he led the military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt's first democratically elected president. The military subsequently cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi's supporters, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. Morsi has been imprisoned and is now facing the death penalty.

Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and US Secretary of State John Kerry
The US has refrained from calling el-Sissi's rise to power a military coupImage: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images

"This is a coup," Shahin told DW. "This shows that the United States is willing to be with any government regardless of any kind of legitimacy or background."

Washington, for its part, has avoided labeling el-Sissi's putsch as a military coup. Had the White House called Morsi's overthrow a coup, the US would have been obligated under federal law to cancel all military aid to Egypt. Instead, the Obama administration froze only a portion of the more than $1 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

"Those [Egyptians] who are against the coup look at America as part of this process; as part of overthrowing a democratic process; as part of trying to contain the popular uprisings; and as part of trying to manage the process of potential change in the region," Shahin said, referring to US policy in Egypt as "business as usual."