Not an Ally, Not an Enemy

Posted September 13th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

President Obama struck a powerful chord last night when asked about Egypt’s tepid response to the incursion on the American Embassy in Cairo. ”I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Obama told Telemundo. The American president’s pointed observation balanced the need to put Egypt on notice against the importance, in diplomacy, of not sounding like a scold.

In this case, Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi has behaved like a recalcitrant populist, trying to benefit domestically from anger over a private American film that insulted Islam, while not losing any of America’s vital support for Egypt. Perhaps Morsi has read recent Egyptian history and concluded that Cairo’s support is so important that Washington will bear any humiliation in order to retain the special military and security relationship. Yet all international relations have their limits; and Morsi might have forgotten that America accepted a great amount of bad behavior by the SCAF during the 18-month transitional period that followed Mubarak’s fall — but now we’re dealing with an elected sovereign government with a popular mandate and popular accountability. This is the real thing, a democratically governed Egypt. Its president is now responsible for his behavior and for his country’s policy.

In a chat yesterday on Capital New York, I said that Obama would need to pointedly express America’s anger toward Egypt.

Don’t get me wrong: he needs to “engage” the Brotherhood, which means, “have relations” with it. In this case, the engagement should consist of a cold, angry, demand: that they immediately condemn the invasion of the embassy grounds, and that they act responsibly to cool anti-American sentiment—if they expect our financial aid, our military aid, and our indispensable support in getting the IMF and other international assistance vital to Egypt’s economic survival. … I think it will hurt Obama if he doesn’t criticize Egypt aggressively, and in public. And I think the damage could grow if people connect these breaches to America’s broader directionless in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

That’s the real problem, by the way—not the stuff Romney is bringing up.

Obama might finally be making some progress, a year and a half late, in coining a coherent response to the Arab uprisings. His comments about Egypt suggest that Washington is mature and wise enough to begin navigating that gray area between subservient client state and outright enemy; most of the post-uprising Arab world will fall somewhere in that confusing terrain that houses most sovereign states, neither “with us” nor “against us.”

America is contemplating an Egypt that won’t march in lockstep with all its interests. Egypt doesn’t want to go to war with Israel for its own reasons, but it’s likely to be much more hostile and less cooperative there. Same on defense and counter-terrorism. Cairo and Washington will have to negotiate their limited shared interests. The flip side, however, might not yet have dawned on Egypt’s new leaders; America is under no obligation to underwrite Egypt’s military and to a lesser degree is economy with no-strings-attached billions. An independent Egyptian government (or depending on your perspective, an irritating one) will surely be a boon to Egypt’s sense of honor, pride, and autonomy. But it won’t come without consequences. Angering an American government, even a patient one, still carries costs.