Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s visit to the White House on April 9, 2019, resulted in one of the worst setbacks for U.S. Middle Eastern policy under the Donald Trump Administration.
What was supposed to be a fence-mending exercise between the two countries essentially ended many of the meaningful strategic aspects of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, despite the fact that the public appearances between the two presidents appeared to be cordial. There have been significant areas of difference and frustration between Egypt and the US, even since the Trump Administration came to office, but there was at least a concerted effort on both sides to work harmoniously.
There has also been good personal chemistry between the two presidents since Trump ended what the Egyptians had regarded as a disastrous period under Barack Obama. President Sisi had essentially broken off strategic relations with the U.S. during the Obama Administration tenure in order to resist Obama’s insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood play a larger role in Egyptian politics.
The question now is who in the Washington bureaucracy will take the blame for pushing Trump to insist on actions by al-Sisi which any fundamental analysis of the situation points to being infeasible and against Egypt’s view of its own strategic interests.
That is not to say that Egypt wishes to end cordiality and cooperation between Washington and Cairo; it does not. But certain battle lines have been drawn in the greater Middle East, and Cairo and the U.S. are not altogether on the same side. Both sides will need to undertake significant, careful action to put relations back on a positive path before the break becomes calcified.
The failure on this occasion lay at the door of the U.S. for failing to realize that Washington now needs Egypt more than Egypt needs the U.S.
Trump, had, during his White House meeting with Pres. al-Sisi, insisted that Cairo break off or downplay its relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Russian Federation (RF), which Cairo feels it cannot do. The PRC and RF are already firmly entrenched in the Red Sea/Eastern Mediterranean in ways which offer Cairo some benefits without appearing to force Egypt into taking sides in regional disputes.
Trump also hoped the Sisi meeting would re-invigorate his idea of an “Arab NATO”, the proposed Middle East Security Alliance (MESA), raised at the beginning of his Presidency. MESA would, U.S. planners believed, align the Gulf Arab states — particularly Saudi Arabia — with Jordan and Egypt to strategically balance and oppose Iran. Cairo cannot realistically support such a position in black and white terms (neither can Qatar or Jordan, at this stage). Cairo is actually open to improved relations with Iran, particularly because the Egyptian Government feels less than secure that the current Saudi regime is stable and reliable.
Trump, during the White House meeting, strenuously attempted to support Saudi Arabia and MbS, but received strong pushback from al-Sisi on that account.
The measure of Egypt’s rejection of the U.S. pressure was indicated when al-Sisi, immediately upon returning to Cairo on April 10, 2019, formally withdrew Egypt from MESA. Egypt had very deliberately not sent a delegation to the MESA summit in Riyadh on April 8, 2019.
This was as direct a response as could be delivered to the U.S. by Egypt.
Despite the realities that Qatar and Jordan have (for different reasons) felt that they must align with the new Middle East Entente (Turkey, Iran, and Qatar), that April 8, 2019, MESA summit included Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Jordan. Significantly, it did not include Iraq or Syria.
Qatar’s participation was particularly notable, given the fact that Qatar has been the subject of massive efforts by Saudi Arabia to ostracize it from the region, and because (partly as a result of that Saudi-led effort) Qatar had recently teamed up with Turkey and Iran to form a new “Middle Eastern Entente”.
At the White House meeting, Trump urged Cairo to abandon its support for Khalifa Haftar in Libya, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces were, at that time, poised outside the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to take the city, and with it control of the central bank and the Libyan National Oil Company. President al-Sisi steadfastly refused to entertain the abandonment of Haftar as his approach to oppose not only the jihadist Sunni factions in Libya aligned with al-Qaida or DI’ISH, but also to oppose Turkish/Muslim Brotherhood attempts to dominate a future Libyan Government aligned with the approach of al-Sisi.
It is not insignificant that France, the United Arab Emirates, and more recently Saudi Arabia, also support General Haftar. And France and the UAE have been major pillars of financial and military support for Egypt since the Egyptian break with the U.S. This is not to say that Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s most significant ally in the Arab world — has not also been important as a supporter of Egypt; it has. In fact, it may have been Saudi Arabia which was, as a major buyer of French defense goods, responsible for financing the French role in the reconstruction of the Ethiopian Navy.
The U.S. failings with regard to forming a stable government in post-Gadhafi Libya go back to the Obama Administration’s policies, subsequently embraced by the Trump Administration’s State Department, which has very pointedly refused to consider the 1951 UN-sanctioned constitution of Libya which would have ended the inter-tribal rivalries unleashed by the 1969 Gadhafi coup against King Idris I, of Libya.
President Trump, in the public aspects of the meeting with al-Sisi, also pushed Egypt on issues of alleged human rights violations, a criticism which the Egyptian Government feels is unfair and hypocritical, especially given that the U.S. did not voice complaints over the rapid slide in the condition of the Egyptian population under Mohammed Morsi, who came into office during the Obama Administration.
There is little question that the Trump-Sisi meeting has resulted in a significant weakening of the U.S. in the region, while France, the PRC, the RF, and, indirectly, Iran all benefited. Egypt has seen its regional influence strengthened and now draws support from a number of different sources, both regional and extra-regional, and appears to have moved beyond the eras of British, Soviet, or U.S. subordination.
This could well be a watershed moment for Egypt after more than two millennia of external domination by Ptolemaic (Hellenic), Arab, French, British, and other forces. President al-Sisi now seems determined to restore the country’s “Egyptian” identity.
Meanwhile, the removal of Egypt from the Middle East Strategic Alliance may doom MESA to perpetual weakness. Egypt’s lack of participation undermines the one great initiative which the U.S. had hoped to use to regain some influence in the region, an initiative that has been further undermined by the creation of the new Middle East Entente (dominated by Iran, Turkey, and Qatar, with Syria, Oman, and Jordan playing subordinate parts).
Egypt’s growing strength, and that of Iran (in the Middle East Entente), suggests we may be entering an era in which local powers once again emerge as the dominant forces of the region. Turkey’s hope to be a key component in that dynamic, however, is at best problematic: the Turkish economy is now so weakened that — alone among the aspirant powers of Egypt, Iran, and Turkey — Ankara is rapidly becoming a vassal state of Moscow.
This new divide between Washington and Cairo does not mean that the two can no longer work together on some issues. Suez Canal security is critical to the U.S., for example, and the US has thrown its weight behind the Eastern Mediterranean linkages between Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece on the exploitation of major offshore gas reserves. Now, the U.S. and Egypt could conceivably re-emerge as allies, rather than as senior and junior partners in a marriage which forbids other relations on the part of the junior partner.
Two major Washington bureaucratic imperatives, however, seemed to conspire to cause Trump to push established approaches of both the State Department and National Security Advisor John Bolton. The Bolton approach, to directly punish Iran as harshly as possible, clearly grated on President al-Sisi, and the unrealistic belief of State (and the White House) that an Arab, predominantly Sunni, coalition could be mobilized to effectively counter Iran seems to be struggling.
The ongoing belief in the U.S. that Egypt’s defenses are existentially dependent on Washington is something which Cairo cannot comprehend. Washington policy thinking is that Cairo would obey U.S. diktat because it needed spare parts for U.S.-supplied equipment, or because it so needed the relatively small contribution offered by the Camp David Accord aid payments. But, as I noted on April 10, 1972, in Defense Newsletter (the predecessor to Defense & Foreign Affairs), President Anwar as-Sadat was prepared to remove the Soviets from Egypt to achieve greater independence, even though the U.S. at that time felt that Egypt could never defend itself without Soviet support for Egyptian military hardware. Similarly, when President al-Sisi walked away from the direct threats from Barack Obama and risked cutting off U.S. spare parts support for U.S.-supplied defense systems, the U.S. felt that Egypt could not survive without the U.S.
Cairo successfully walked away from the U.S. as it walked away from the Soviets. And the U.S. institutions of strategic policy still have not digested that reality.
Clearly, President Trump’s desire to support MbS and Saudi Arabia (and to oppose Iran) played a key role, as well, in his desire to win support from al-Sisi. But al-Sisi has always had a more nuanced view of the threats posed by further isolating Iran, or, more pointedly, driving it into alliance with Turkey. Growing U.S. concerns over Turkey’s moves away from the West were not seen in the light of Egypt’s concerns over Turkey’s attempts to create a role for itself in North Africa, the Levant, and the Red Sea/Horn, including Sudan. All against Egyptian interests.
Washington has not fully come to terms with the reality that the great strategic rivalry in the region is between Turkey and Egypt. They are, essentially, at war, which is why, for example, Egypt and Israel cooperate so extensively to constrain HAMAS in Gaza and in Egyptian Sinai. Egypt also takes a longer view on Iran than the U.S. or Israel do. Egypt sees the Iranian/Persian revival (normalization, as the clerics’ “revolution” matures back to Persian normalcy over the coming decade or so) as the return to a major role in the region for Iran. President al-Sisi understands history and geopolitics, and those who did in Washington have now passed out of influence in the new era of reactive politics.
In particular, Cairo can feel no added security from the removal on April 10, 2019, of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and the installation of the Defense Minister Ahmed ibn Auf, as chief of a new Military Council, with Army Chief of Staff Kamal Abdelmarouf as deputy head of the Council. For the Egyptian Government — and to the Sudanese opposition — this will have seemed like the Islamist military leadership of Sudan replacing al-Bashir because his removal was inevitable. But the pro-Muslim Brotherhood — supported by Turkey — military has remained in place, something which the opposition and Cairo oppose.
A nuanced and unstable pattern is emerging, and, from the U.S. standpoint, President Donald Trump has been poorly advised as to how to benefit from it. A similar case could be made for U.S. failures in the Pakistan and Central Asian situations, largely because of the inherited linear thinking within the State Dept., Defense Dept., the U.S. Intelligence Community, and media. So while a new “bipolar world” is emerging between the US and the People’s Republic of China, there is also a new multipolar world emerging, with powers such as Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia stepping into a new matrix.