In the wake of Egyptian air strikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Libya this month, Rear Admiral John Kirby, spokesman of the US Department of Defence, said that his country has “a complex relationship with Egypt.”
Indeed, we Egyptians have had complex relations with the United States ever since we signed the peace treaty with Israel on 26 March 1979 on the lawn of the White House in Washington, DC.
The writer of this article was present at the signing of this document that pushed the Middle East into an epoch unprecedented in the modern history of the Arabs, and the history of Egypt.
This article is not about peace between Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis, but rather about the reinvigoration of Egyptian foreign policy after the 2013 June Revolution, a term that is an anathema in Washington and in the debates that have been taking place about Egypt in the post-June era in the West.
After the Egyptian air strikes around the Libyan city of Sirte, Libya, Egypt called for the convening of an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council. This was done in concert with the Libyan government recognised as the legitimate authority by the UN and the international community.
Egypt called for adoption of a resolution concerning the deteriorating security situation in Libya after the emergence there of IS and the targeting and brutal killing of a number of Egyptian Copts.
These killings were accompanied by a message that directly threatened Europe and the Vatican, as the high symbol of Catholicism, when it referred to Rome. In earlier statements, posted on social media, IS said that its flags would be hoisted in Rome.
Since 1979, the Americans have always called their relationship with Egypt strategic, and for the layman, as well as for experts in strategic relationships among nations, this stands for solidarity and support, be it military or political on the international scene and within the United Nations.
When one party of these so-called strategic relationships comes under attack, the other party is bound to lend all possible support. For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Egyptian support for a military response proved to be crucial to the ultimate liberation of Kuwait on 25 February 1991.
The US reaction to Egypt’s request on Libya was not only disappointing. I would call it catastrophic. Here you have a longstanding “ally” threatened on its western borders with Libya and the US administration stands idly by. It also confuses its responsibilities in the context of this “strategic relationship” with Egypt with talk about the importance of a political solution in Libya. By the same logic, Egypt has a right to call for a political solution in Iraq between IS and the Sunni tribes and clans and the Iraqi government, in addition to the Kurds.
The session of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Libya took place on Wednesday, 18 February. Twenty-four hours before, the Americans, with four other Western governments, issued an official statement in which they stated that the situation in Libya after the assassination of the Coptic Egyptians, and after Egyptian air strikes (though without referring to them by name), “underscores the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Libya.”
It continued: “No one faction can confront alone the challenges [within Libya],” and the “international community is prepared to fully support a unity government in addressing Libya’s current challenges.”
The statement went on: “The urgency of the terrorist threat demands swift progress in the political process, based on clear timelines,” and “Those who seek to impede this process and Libya’s democratic transition will not be allowed to condemn Libya to chaos and extremism. They will be held accountable by the Libyan people and the international community for their actions.”
The inherent warning in this statement is so general that it would naturally be subject to different interpretations as to whom it is addressed. Is it addressed to factions and groups within Libya? Or does it also mean outside powers? Of course, if the second interpretation holds, I am sure both Turkey and Qatar will be excluded.
So to which power is this veiled threat addressed in a statement that purports to speak on behalf of both the Libyan people and the international community? It is Egypt, and only Egypt, even when its security is threatened openly, while it is fighting terrorist attacks already in Sinai, and across the country.
The Egyptian foreign minister met Ambassador Susan Rice, the US national security advisor, on 19 February. He was in the US capital to participate in the Washington Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, a conference convened by the US administration in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January.
It is interesting to note that the statement the White House issued after the meeting repeated a US mantra in regards to its characterisation of its relations with Egypt. According to the statement, Ambassador Rice “reaffirmed the US commitment to the strategic partnership with Egypt.”
She emphasised the importance of US-Egyptian cooperation to help the Libyan people address threats from terrorism and to promote a unified Libyan government that can represent the aspirations of all Libyans.
The statement added an interesting sentence where it stressed that Rice conveyed US concerns about human rights and the environment for political participation in Egypt.
In other words, we are told that you must reintegrate the Muslim Brotherhood into political governance in Egypt, regardless of the mayhem and destruction they have caused after the popular ouster of their rule in June-July 2013.
Needless to say, Rice conveyed her condolences for the Egyptian victims of the savage killings in Libya, but what was clearly and sadly absent in the statement was any mention of US assistance to Egypt in its fight against terrorism inside and outside the country.
The US position and reactions to the latest developments in Libya have come as a surprise to most Egyptians. They should not have.
This so-called strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt has been a one-way street from 1979. US strategic interests in the Middle East and North Africa have held dominance, and there has been a US monopoly on the use of force in this vast geographical region.
It goes without saying that Israel and Turkey share in this monopoly. But no others. In case of Egypt, use of its power must be in tandem with US plans and military calculations. In other words, Egyptian power should only be exercised in the context of US strategic interests, and not in contradiction with those interests, regardless of the cost to the security of Egypt and its territorial integrity.
Personally speaking, I believe that the parting of ways between the United States and Egypt that is taking place, quietly, at this present stage stems from our unilateral use of force, independent of the United States, for the first time since the establishment of the Washington-Tel Aviv-Cairo triangle, embodied in the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
In this triangle, that has subject Egypt to many pressures and constraints, Cairo has been assigned the role of a strategic auxiliary. The use of the Egyptian air force against terrorist targets in Libya without authorisation from the United States was a first. From an American point of view, it must be a last.
But Egypt has, and should persist in defending, a sovereign right to defend its borders and protect its national interests. If the Americans, be they Democrats or Republicans, accede then we can truly speak of a strategic partnership with the United States. Short of that, I am afraid the expression rings hollow.