Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Withdrawal Symptoms from Abusive Relationship

The uprising of the Egyptian people and the US administration's confused response provide an excellent opportunity to look in depth at the long relationship between the United States and successive Egyptian governments, especially with the Mubarak government over the past 30 years, and at where that relationship might be headed. US officials repeatedly call Egypt (by which they mean the government) a key ally that has been useful to US interests in the Middle East, usually couched in general terms such as preserving peace and stability and cooperating in 'counter-terrorism' activities. One of the best analyses of the military share of US aid to Egypt, which amounts to about $40 billion since 1979, was prepared by the US government's own General Accountability Office in 2006. Its breakdown is a little out of date but it remains of great interest to see what the United States receives in return for this largesse. 'Largesse' is perhaps not the most apposite word since most of the money goes to US arms manufacturers and to consultancy firms and contractors who send US trainers and specialists to Egypt to oversee the integration of hardware into the Egyptian armed forces. It also pays for training Egyptian military personnel in the United States. On top of the military aid, there has also been economic assistance for civilian projects, amounting to several hundred million dollars a year in recent years. The 2006 report listed the goals of the military aid programme as   (1) modernizing and training Egypt’s military; (2) facilitating Egypt’s participation as a coalition partner; (3) providing force protection to the U.S. military in the region; and (4) helping guarantee U.S. access to the Suez Canal and overflight routes. It said the long-term outcomes were: a continued and improving collaborative relationship with the US, stability in the Middle East, no war between Egypt and Israel, and a strong relationship between US and Egypt. Between 2001 and 2005 Egypt provided over-flight permission to 36,553 U.S. military aircraft through Egyptian airspace and granted expedited transit of 861 U.S. naval ships through the Suez Canal, with all security support for the ship transits. That level of overflights, which coincided with the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2005, works out at about 20 a day, far more than most people were aware of before the report was published. Although the military aid programme makes much of interoperability (jargon for the ability to use each other's equipment), in practice the United States and Egypt have fought side by side only in Kuwait in 1991, when Egyptian forces played the role of token Arabs in a Western campaign.  So much for the military aspect.
    In the security sphere, it is now common knowledge that the United States outsourced to Egypt some of the interrogation under torture of what they call 'terror suspects' it picked up in Iraq and Afghanistan or abducted here and there around the world. I have not seen a good assessment of the number of victims or of the quality and value of the information that the Egyptian torturers obtained on the behalf of the United States. Judging at least by the quality of the information the Egyptian police and state security seem to extract from their victims (evident in the Interior Ministry's detailed statements about extremist groups), I suspect it was of marginal value. 
    In the civilian and diplomatic sphere, the benefits to either side are even harder to quantify, since they are largely intangible. But in the years since Hamas won elections to the Palestinian legislature in 2006 and especially since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, the Egyptian government has played an ignominious role in conjunction with Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority in trying to undermine and destroy Hamas. It was complicit in the unsuccessful 2007 conspiracy to have Fatah defeat Hamas in Gaza by military force. It has since collaborated in the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has caused extreme suffering and deprivation to the million and a half people who live in the densely populated territory. During the Israeli attacks on Gaza in early 2008, the Egyptian government allowed Israeli warplanes to overfly Egypt to attack targets in Gaza. These activities have been of benefit primarily to the Israeli government, and secondarily to the United States only in the sense that the United States identifies with Israel's regional objectives. At one point the United States and Israel outsourced to Egypt the task of trying to persuade Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and to endorse a common position with Fatah for peace talks. Egypt failed in both those attempts.   
   The United States also has commercial interests in Egypt, just like other countries, but there is no special relationship here. Egypt is no longer a significant oil exporter and it sells its gas to a diverse range of customers,  including the United States (about 35 percent of LNG exports and 24 percent of all gas exports in 2009). Egypt is one of the world's biggest wheat buyers but it buys on the open market according to price and availability, with no special preference for the United States.
    Taken as a whole, it is clear that from the US government's point of view Egypt's importance lies mainly in preserving the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 (the starting point for the aid programme) and cooperating in U.S. and Israeli military operations against their common regional enemies (Hamas, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein etc). The other elements pale into insignificance in comparison.
    It is too early at this stage to say what kind of government Egypt will have in 12 months' time. The next president could be either Omar Suleiman, who would maintain Mubarak's policies, some other establishment figure, a liberal democrat such as Mohamed ElBaradei, or a unexpected populist who might emerge over the next months from the turmoil of the new Egypt. A Muslim Brotherhood president is out of the question, since the Brotherhood has renounced any presidential ambitions this time round. No president would have any interest in provoking Israel into outright conflict. The most they might attempt is to ease the blockade of Gaza, open a more balanced dialogue with Hamas and speak out more forcefully to express Egyptian views on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. These are objectives a sensible administration in Washington should accept, though they probably would not. The next Egyptian government is very unlikely in the near future to seek a review of the peace treaty, even of the clauses which require diplomatic relations and which limit Egyptian army deployments in parts of Sinai. But a new government might not want to continue receiving US aid in its present form, because of the widespread impression among Egyptians that the aid infringes on the country's sovereignty. Its economic value has been declining with inflation for the past 30 years and it would be no great loss to the country as a whole. The main losers would be the army generals, who would no longer receive a steady supply of fancy military hardware which they never use in combat.
    All in all, the advent of a new Egyptian government, the first with a popular mandate since the 1950s, is something Israel and the United States can easily live with. It might even persuade the Israelis to reconsider policies based on racism and on overwhelming force. Their current state of panic is merely a withdrawal symptom from an unhealthy and abusive relationship which no one should lament.

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