There's a Simple Reason Why the U.S. Doesn't Know What to Do About Egypt

There is one historically consistent factor that dictates U.S. policy on Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East for that matter. It’s not concern for human rights or democracy, and it’s not even concern for U.S. interests. The U.S.-Israel relationship and America’s devotion to the protection of Israel above all else is the driving force behind our policies on Egypt. This alliance pervades U.S. decision-making, inhibiting the Obama administration’s ability to adapt to the demands and needs of Egypt and its people during this precarious time of transition.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the alliance between the U.S. and Israeli has grown into a close military and political relationship, due to the efforts of the Israeli lobby. As a result, Israel's interests have become the U.S. government's paramount concern when formulating Middle East policy. The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty ended the state of war and established diplomatic relations and security cooperation between the two countries. For the sake of Israel's interests, the U.S. government has continued to support subsequent Egyptian leaders willing to uphold the terms of the treaty and cooperate with Israel regardless their authoritarian and repressive tactics inflicted upon Egyptians.

Since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in June, the Egyptian military has continued its crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of the military, recently appealed to Egyptians to support the military’s repressive actions. “I urge the people to take to the streets this coming Friday to prove their will and give me, the army, and the police a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism,” he said.

Even more disconcerting, Tamarod, the movement which led protests against Morsi, called upon its followers to “support the Egyptian armed forces in its coming war against terrorism and cleanse Egyptian land.” This type of rhetoric is an attempt to broad-brush dissidents as terrorists in order to justify a violent repression that could further divide Egyptians.

While Egypt faces numerous challenges as its citizens attempt to establish a functioning democracy, U.S. politicians are merely concerned with what Israel wants.

This is not a new development as it has been the guiding force behind U.S. policy in the region since 1948. Last week, the issue made its way to the Senate when lawmakers debated an amendment proposing the suspension of military aid to Egypt. Senator Jim Inhofe (R - Okla.) argued against the proposal, “If you have any feelings at all toward our good friends, our best friends in the Middle East, that is Israel, then you cannot consider this amendment. Israel has all of the interests at stake.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R - S.C.) also rejected the amendment quoting a letter from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading Israeli lobbyist. Proving that blind support for Israel is truly a bipartisan affair, Robert Menendez (D - N.J.) chimed in, “It is true they are opposed, and I would assume Israel, a sovereign state, knows what its security interests (sic) better than anybody else.”

Currently, the Obama administration is attempting to play both sides. The administration has called for restraint on the part of the Egyptian military, but American military aid will also continue in order to maintain the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. However, despite the U.S. government’s call for an end to the violence and the delay of a delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft to Egyptian forces, the Egyptian military shows no sign of changing course.

An editorial in The Washington Post attributes this “collapse of U.S. prestige and influence in Cairo” to the U.S. government’s failure to speak out against human rights abuses or use the $1.3 billion in military aid as a means to assert pressure on Egyptian authorities. Israeli officials have stated that they want the U.S. to continue to provide military aid to Egypt. Thus, due to the U.S. government’s persistent placement of Israel’s security above all else, the Egyptian military knows it has leverage with respect to the peace treaty’s security agreements. The U.S. government has, essentially, painted itself into a corner with few tenable alternative options to pursue in Egypt.

America is seeing the results of its deeply flawed policies in the region. The uprisings across the Arab world are changing the political landscape, and the U.S. is unable to adapt. The U.S. will likely continue to pursue its myopic policies fraught with double standards and lose influence in Egypt.

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Elizabeth Rghebi

I recently received my M.A. from Columbia University in Middle Eastern studies. My research interests focus on Arab politics, especially in the Levant and North Africa.

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