The Future of Egyptian-American Relations: Lessons from the Past

14/11/2013, Rome

Following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Egypt, the first after the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, the IAI hosted a seminar on relations between the United States and one of the key countries of its Middle Eastern policy.

The seminar was held by Professor Robert Springborg, retired professor from the Department of National Security Affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and expert on Middle East studies, and was moderated by Gabriele Tonne, editor of The International Spectator, the foreign policy journal of the IAI.

Professor Springborg began the discussion by looking at the parallelism in relations between Egypt and the US intwo historical moments: Egypt today and Egypt when General Abdel Gamal Nasser came to power in the late 40s/early 50s. In his opinion, the United States has found in General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a man to bet on, as was the case with Nasser in the early years.

Professor Springborg then listedfour possible scenarios for "post Morsi" Egypt; the first two are extreme situations, while the last two could be considered transition scenarios:
1) consolidation of military rule, if the army can prove itself capable of leading the country, primarily in the difficult task of economic reconstruction;
2) decline into chaos if the military is not strong enough to lead the country;
3) a negotiation between the Islamist forces and the military, which could lead to a situation of compromise and then to a sort of democracy; the "Turkish scenario";
4) the "Brazilian Model", in which Egypt is able to move from a military regime to a democratic transition.

According to Prof. Springborg, the “Turkish model” is the most unlikely as the Muslim Brothers will probably be out of the picture for a while. In fact, here he continued with the parallel with Egypt under Nasser, in that the military subsequently violently repressed the Islamic movement.

Springborg asserted that, "Nowadays as yesterday the main drivers of relations between Egypt and the US are money, guns and diplomatic support." These are the benefits that the US guarantees Egypt to be reassured that it will remain within its sphere of influence. On the one hand, it is much more convenient for the United States to provide these assets than to risk instability in this crucial ally, on the other, Egypt receives vital assistance in terms of national security.

Subsequently, the conference focused on the figure of General Sisi, and what his role in the country’s new political configuration might be. Springborg is sceptical about his ability to present himself as a new Nasser; nevertheless he believes that Sisi has good chances of reconfiguring Egypt. Like his renowned predecessor, General Sisi reflects Egyptian society and now has most of the army on his side. Indeed, with the support of the United States, he could assume a position that Springborg defined as the role of a ‘kingly general’. Yet, he believes that Sisi does not want to direct the transformation totally by himself and set himself up as president but, more likely, will try to get full powers on matters concerning national security, leaving other issues, such as the difficult economic reconstruction in a country now sorely tried after years of upheaval, to other organs.

Who will take on these other roles is hard to tell and, in Springborg’s opinion, there is no way that Egypt’s institutional future can be forecast.

He assumes that it is unlikely that the Egyptian economy will be radically transformed by the military leaders, given that economic conditions have deteriorated significantly over the past months, and that the current economic system is mainly oriented toward ‘rent seeking’ resources. We will probably witness the emergence of new economic and political forces, but for the complete reconfiguration of the political landscape, we will have to wait for a generational change (as happened in Turkey).

Professor Springborg's words at the end of the seminar were incisive. In answer to a question about what happened to the protesters who participated in the demonstrations in the streets during the Arab Spring, he stated, "They had to come back to reality, and thus back the military rule." In fact, Springborg claims that the military never really supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi's government; that was just a mechanism designed by the military to take advantage of the situation and it was merely a matter of time before they would claim their role within the country.

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