Peace treaty with Israel. Oil. Cooperation against terrorism. These are the three pillars of policy that the U.S. president adopted in Egypt; they continue to support Barack Obama’s strategy during these hours of riots in Cairo. The different American political guidelines can be easily boiled down to one word: stability. For stability, the United States has not suspended $1.3 billion in military aid, despite the brutally repressive policies practiced by the Egyptian army in Cairo.
The U.S. is “guided by our national interests in this longstanding relationship [with Egypt],” said President Obama after the explosion of the riots. At the heart of U.S. relations with Egypt are the 1979 Camp David Accords, from which came the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Washington still considers those agreements fundamental for both the security and stability of Israel. The Camp David Accords that define the amount of aid Egypt receives annually from the U.S. Calling into question the amount of aid indicates abandonment of the whole political, diplomatic and military system the U.S. created during the 1979 peace talks. This is something that no U.S. president, including President Obama, ever dared to do.
On the other hand, Israel’s security remains fundamental to the strategy which President Obama is now following. Several officials in the State Department revealed that in the past few weeks, the Israeli government asked the United States not to suspend military aid to Cairo. The vacuum left by the distant and less-influential Washington could easily be filled by Saudi Arabia and other wealthy states — states that have less interest in protecting the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The Israeli and Egyptian armies are making all attempts to limit al-Qaida and other Islamic groups, rendering their actions completely futile. The rise of al-Qaida could, after all, lead to an improbable split of the traditional relationship between Egypt and United States. Washington needs the Egyptian military’s cooperation in the fight against terrorism and in any future wars the United States decides to fight.
American warplanes — those headed to Afghanistan and those that carry out counterterrorism operations in the Middle East or the Horn of Africa — have nearly automatic approval to fly over Egypt. These planes do not require the notice that American warplanes usually need in order to cross other countries’ territories. Even close allies of the United States require notification before allowing U.S. warplanes in their airspace. The same priority is given to the U.S. warships in the Suez Canal. The Turkish parliament refused to let the U.S. cross Turkish territory and airspace for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Egypt immediately authorized the carrier forces to pass through the Suez Canal. It is imperative that the Suez Canal stay open and active in order to let all the oil supplies to pass through the canal.
In the end, the oil flowing through the Suez Canal is the “national interest” that President Obama was referring to in his speech about the strategy he wants to use in the crisis Egypt is now facing. It is the same “national interest” that endured during Mubarak’s dictatorship and now suffers the army’s repression of the demonstrators. This does not mean that the U.S. administration would keep supporting the Egyptian army as if nothing has happened. In the last few weeks, the U.S. has delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian Air Force and suspended some of the military missions with the Egyptian army — tasks that were meant to be carried out in the last month. This is one way for President Obama’s administration to warn the Egyptian army, just as it happened in the past with the Philippines, Pakistan and Indonesia, whose military relations with the U.S. died down after brutal repressions that their governments could not justify. The U.S. sends a message that further human rights violations will not be tolerated.
According to President Obama’s administration, a solution to the Egyptian issue is going to be hard to find. If the U.S. decides to analyze its relationship with Egypt, the complex military and political system the U.S. has created and that has endured for decades might be destroyed. If Obama’s administration continues supporting the Egyptian army, it risks being criticized by all other countries for letting Egypt fall into a vicious cycle of violence. In the end, there will be only one possible solution: a return to a facade of order. As one U.S. administration official anonymously said in an article in The New York Times: “So while the violence is intolerable, we may be able to eventually accept these decisions if the violence ends, and quickly.”
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