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The President and the Fatal Trilateral Logic of US, Egyptian and Israeli Relations

[Tahrir clashes on November 26th. Image originally posted to Flickr by Jonathan Rashad.] [Tahrir clashes on November 26th. Image originally posted to Flickr by Jonathan Rashad.]

In 2007, Mohammed Morsi, then chairman of the Brotherhood’s political department and member of the Executive Bureau, complained of the inability of Washington to match its rhetoric on promoting democracy in Egypt. He said that Israel had no interest in a democratic Egypt as it “would do more to support the Palestinians.” Now Morsi, having brokered a Gaza ceasefire, has shown that his policy on the Palestinians is no more imaginative than Mubarak-era policies and, partly as a result of US approval, has undertaken a democratic rollback that has ignited Egypt’s streets. 

Morsi has inadvertently, and in part, fallen victim to the trilateral logic of Egypt’s bilateral relationship with the United States vis-à-vis the 1979 Camp David treaty.

This was defined by Steven A. Cook in his book, The Struggle for Egypt: from Nasser to Tahrir Square, as the dubious strategic relationship between Egypt and the US that is accompanied with the informal requirement of good Egyptian-Israeli relations – a requirement which, “built into these ties from the very start meant that Washington would almost always view Cairo through the prism of Israel." 

Such a premise, not surprisingly in its close proximity to the Gaza saga, has a strong tendency to foment illiberal domestic policies, as Morsi has done, with a nod from the US and IMF backing, by abrogating the role of the judiciary to render his decrees immune from appeal, simultaneously protecting his Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly from dissolution by the judiciary or anyone else.  

This is not so different from the Mubarak era in which, despite human rights abuses, the relationship with Israel was the trump card that would always sway the White House and mute the US congress. Year after year, the 1.3 billion dollar aid would come rolling in, just about providing international, diplomatic, and financial cover for the regime.

It is this deal that has caused what Khaled Fahmy labels the “Israelisation” of Egyptian foreign policy: this has helped to strip the Palestinian problem of questions regarding international law, right of return, Gaza siege, and land theft, reducing it to a security concern. The Israel portfolio is disturbingly not so much in the hands of Egypt’s foreign ministry as it is in the hands of military intelligence - an organ that operates in a parallel universe above oversight and grossly detached from the prevailing Egyptian discourse and public that is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel due to its subjugation of the Palestinians.

The spirit (whatever that originally meant) of Camp David was quashed from its early days when two consecutive bombing raids were conducted by the Israeli airforce, one on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in early June 1981, and the other in mid-July on Beirut in which hundreds of civilians were killed. Both incidents happened within 48 hours of face-to-face meetings between Sadat and Israeli leader Menachim Begin. Most observers argued the timing of both events were intended either to make the Egyptian leader look complicit in the bombings or like a fool. Yet the Sadat regime's unwillingness to respond in any meaningful way set a dangerous precedent that was swiftly digested by elite actors, foreign and domestic, and taken for permanent Egyptian acquiescence. Sadat did not want to do anything to jeopardise the return of the Sinai, yet such aloofness had longer term consequences.

The Paradox of Camp David

It is one of the paradoxes of Camp David that, while it brought (cold) peace between Egypt and Israel, it exacerbated the region’s tensions. The removal of Israel’s greatest strategic threat has enabled it to pursue hawkish policies, leading to the invasion of Lebanon (1982 and 2006) and a ruthless occupation maintained in between border skirmishes, incursions, attacking Iraq, bombing Syria, entrenching its hold over the Golan Heights, and fuelling and increasing exponentially settlement activities in the occupied territories, while declaring a “completed and undivided” Jerusalem, and, last but not least, killing or jailing untold numbers of Palestinians, the recent Gaza bloodbath being only the latest in many violent episodes. All this while Egypt has not played any significant part in counterbalancing or altering the rules of engagement to ensure that the region is guided to peace. Instead, Egypt has sat on the sidelines and ineffectively protested Israeli violations.

Moreover, Camp David skewed Egyptian foreign policy so as to make it align with US/Israeli interests such as, for example, taking on the Iran nuclear threat when one would be hard-pressed to find Egypt’s public or intellectual discourse prioritising an Iranian threat over Israeli settlement-building and extra-judicial killings. This is not to mention what Cook highlights – that is, that “the U.S.-sponsored modernization of Egypt’s armed forces has been purposefully slow and has emphasized a defensive military posture.”

More than three-quarters of Egyptians have called for a revision of Camp David in order to redress the loopholes and one-sided effects of the treaty. It would not only be in Egypt’s best interest, but Israel’s as well. Yet three-quarters of Egyptians are being too optimistic.

Recent events should set off alarm bells for the Egypt-first isolationists as a reminder that their country is intertwined with the region’s geo-strategic politics, and some external actors want more of the Mubarak days for Egypt as it served their interest so well – this ranges from Israel to even the Gulf states. It is not enough for Egyptian apologists for the trilateral logic to call themselves “realists” to the detriment of their country’s security, the Palestinians, and the entire region.

The late Ismail Sabri Abdullah, Sadat’s Minister for Planning, lamented “If we [Egypt] wanted to have a good relationship with the United States, we needed to spend the night in Tel Aviv.” Now once again, Egyptians, will be spending the night (and nights) in Tahrir to tell the Morsi government that, first and foremost, a good relationship comes from a subservience to the people, not to themselves, let alone to foreign capitals.

[This piece was originally published in Open Democracy

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