Is The U.S. Forcing Egypt Toward A Russian Alliance?By: James D. Durso
Hosni Mubarak, former President of Egypt, walked free last week after six years in detention on charges of murder and corruption. What does the U.S. have to show for it? Nothing.
In January 2011, Egyptian activists planned protests against corruption, lack of economic growth, and the heavy-handed police tactics of the recent years. The protests were scheduled for 25 January in Cairo and across Egypt. A broad swath of Egyptian activist groups participated, including the Islamists. The protests quickly escalated and became increasingly violent to the extent that the police were replaced by the military. At the end of two weeks, Mubarak had dissolved his government, appointed an interim leader, and announced he would not seek re-election in the September 2011 elections.
The elections of June 2012 handed power to the only organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Mohammed Morsi, who promptly tried to install an Islamist constitution and grant himself broader power than had Mubarak. The secular opposition was upset that the Islamist opposition they helped usher into power would be so…Islamist. More violent protests ensued. The whole sorry mess came to an end in July 2013, when the military seized power and Morsi’s hand-picked minister of defense, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, became Egypt’s leader and was elected President in May 2014 with a Chicago-like 93 percent of the vote.
Where was the U.S. in all this? Inside the White House, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates favored Mubarak’s gradual transition out of power, concerned that giving a longtime friend of the U.S. the bum’s rush would tell other friendly leaders in the region that the U.S. would buckle if it were them. President Obama decided, however, the U.S. would be “on the right side of history” by forcing Mubarak from power after only two weeks of protests. Thus, America forgot that its key audience in the Arab Middle East is the rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, not every activist with a Twitter feed.
As a man once said, “How’s that working out for you?” For America, not so well:
- President El-Sisi is cordial with the U.S., but he is hedging his bets by getting closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin whom he has met with several times, in Russia and the Middle East.
- Egypt has signed contracts with Russian companies for nuclear power reactors and advanced fighter aircraft. Egypt was stung when the U.S. delayed the delivery in 2014 of paid-for attack helicopters Egypt claimed were needed for counter-terror operations in the Sinai Peninsula – the first time the U.S. had used the Foreign Military Sales “nuclear option” of withholding spare parts or denying delivery of equipment. Egypt took the lesson and is diversifying its supplier base.
A key part of supplying military equipment is not just shipping the hardware, it is training the people. Egypt has traditionally sent its military leaders, including then-Brigadier General El-Sisi to U.S. military schools, where they learned U.S. doctrine, the better able to cooperate with the U.S forces, were exposed to U.S. society and made contacts with future U.S. military leaders. That opportunity to form relationships with future U.S. leaders may now be diluted.
- Egypt is seeking Russian training for its forces. In one ironic twist, Russia will be training Egyptian pilots of the Russian Ka-52K Katran attack helicopter that will be based on Egypt’s new French-made Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that were once bound for Russia but not delivered after Russia seized Crimea.
- Egypt is cooperating with Russia’s support of Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar by allowing the deployment of Russian Forces to the Egypt-Libyan border. Haftar, a renegade Gadaffi regime official who cooperated with U.S. intelligence and lived in the U.S. for two decades, returned to Libya to help oust Gadaffi and later gained command of the largest militia, which opposes the UN-recognized, Tripoli-based unity government.
U.S.-Egyptian relations aren’t in dire danger, but Egypt’s relations with the U.S. and Russia may be returning to that of an earlier era, not exactly Nasser’s “positive neutrality,” but more independent of the U.S. And Egypt’s more independent stance will be helped by the recent discovery of an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – worth about $100 billion – off its Mediterranean coast.
President El-Sisi was the first foreign leader to talk to President-elect Trump, who previously described El-Sisi as a “fantastic guy,” so goodwill is there. America’s leaders will now have to dedicate time and attention to get Egypt on-side rather than assuming it will be a perennial “Yes” vote for U.S. policies in the region.