Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is making his first visit to the United States since his election last June to participate in the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly. American officials should take this opportunity to “reboot” our relationship with Egypt, the most populous Arab country and a critical U.S. ally as we stand down the Islamic terrorists of ISIS.
The Obama administration badly misread Egypt’s culture, politics, and history in its dealings with Cairo following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. At every stage of the cascading events that have followed, Washington has shown a startling naiveté, with profound and dangerous impacts.
Initially, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nurtured the vain hope that some unidentified “moderate” wing of the Muslim Brotherhood would, somehow, restore stability to Egypt. Instead, Morsi and the clerics launched a repressive religious regime at home and, internationally, abrogated Egypt’s treaty with Israel and sought rapprochement with Iran. Within a year, with Egypt’s economy in shambles and the rigid strictures of the clerics beginning to chafe, 14 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation.
El-Sisi became a national hero when, as head of the army, he refused Morsi’s orders to fire on his fellow Egyptian citizens. Nevertheless, inside the fantasy world of the Obama administration, his subsequent ascension to power was seen as a coup d’état.
But the electorate seems to approve, given that El-Sisi won the country’s presidency when the matter was put to the ballot this summer. Now just 100 days into his term, he has already taken bold steps to reduce Egypt’s ballooning deficit and has launched an expansion of the Suez Canal that will more than double its revenue, from $5 billion to $12.5 billion annually.
Simultaneously, he has waged war with Islamic radicals in the Sinai — and did so without help from the United States. In October, Washington suspended military aid, including deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters, missiles, and $260 million in cash. The stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to aid El-Sisi in his fight against Islamic terror literally forced El-Sisi into the waiting arms of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was more than happy to cut a preliminary $3.5 billion arms deal with Cairo.
As early as a year ago, El-Sisi was among the first to warn of the growing militancy of radical Islamists in his region, but until the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, his words fell on deaf ears.
Now, however, as President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry finally face up to the new reality of ISIS and its bloodthirsty effort to establish a Caliphate, the U.S. is beginning to appreciate anew the value of Egypt as a moderating force in the region — and, hopefully, the formidable political and military skills of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
On the eve of his visit, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel belatedly phoned his counterpart in Cairo to confirm that, yes, in view of the new threat posed by ISIS, the U.S. will deliver the ten long-sought Apache helicopters to Egypt after all.
For his part, in his first interviews with western media, El-Sisi pledged that Egypt will do “whatever is required” to aid the U.S.-led coalition, allowing access to Egyptian airspace and promising logistical support for airstrikes. Already, in late August, U.S. intelligence believes Egypt allowed planes from the United Arab Emirates the use of Egyptian bases to launch a series of airstrikes against Islamic militants in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
As the Obama administration finally faces the threat posed by ISIS and belatedly begins building regional alliances to wage what will be a difficult and complicated struggle, the White House appears to be recognizing the importance of Egypt and its democratically elected new president.
It remains to be seen, though, whether El-Sisi’s visit will trigger a more rational approach by Washington. It better: the fate of the entire Middle East could depend on it.