Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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What Is Egypt?

by Steven A. Cook
March 1, 2013

A protester holds up an Egyptian flag as he chants anti-Morsi slogans during a protest in front of the presidential palace, in Cairo February 1, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters). A protester holds up an Egyptian flag as he chants anti-Morsi slogans during a protest in front of the presidential palace, in Cairo February 1, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Friday, March 1, 2013. 

When Secretary of State John Kerry sits down with Egyptian officials during his trip to Cairo this weekend, he will no doubt drag out an old talking point: The United States and Egypt, leaders from both countries are fond of saying, enjoy a “strategic relationship.”

Yet for all the talk of common interests and close alignment, few can define what this actually means. President Barack Obama has worked hard to keep relations between Washington and Cairo on track as Egypt has lurched from one political crisis to another over the last two years — but where exactly is that track supposed to be leading?

It is not at all clear that the president knows. When Hosni Mubarak visited Washington in 2009 after a five-year absence, Obama fell back on platitudes, praising the Egyptian dictator as “a leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States.” The substance of ties were almost as empty as the words: Almost three years to the day later, Obama averred that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy.

If Egypt is not an ally and it is not an enemy, then what is it? No one knows. To get around the question, American officials have engaged in remarkably consistent circumlocution. In late 2004, as President George W. Bush’s administration was ramping up its “forward-leaning strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” a group of Washington-based journalists and think tankers asked a senior American official in Cairo to describe what the United States wanted in Egypt.

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  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    If anyone believes that the US-Egyptian relationship has not collapsed this person is in denial. The emblem of identity of the US foreign policy has been to support unpopular dictators and to look the other way insofar as their inexcusable excesses are concerned. Obama’s buttering-up of Mubarak during the latter’s visit to Washington in 2009 as well as the fancy platitudes uttered during his landmark speech in Cairo are only two of many examples. On New Year’s Eve i.e. December 31, 1977 a US President, with a holier-than-thou attitude, in his toast to his host, the Shah of Iran, called Iran “an island of stability” in a troubled world. Thirteen months later Ayatollah Khomeini landed in Tehran and the Shah was gone. We have seen similar molly-coddling of the Mujahedeen (now known as the Taliban) by President Reagan; they were called “the soldiers of God” when they were fighting the Soviets.

    With a new Secretary of State in place it is time for a high-level bipartisan debate to highlight the underlying principles, if there are any, which would help define our country’s foreign policy in the coming years. A chameleon-like approach will only lead to further similar challenges in the decades ahead.

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