By Jarjieh Fang
In 2011, young, urbane, and disaffected Egyptians descended upon Tahrir Square and called for a more responsive government and greater economic opportunities. Five years later, a repressive regime still controls the Egyptian government. Economic opportunities are still limited and the military remains Egypt’s sole functional institution. And predictably, radicalization, terrorism, and insurgencies increasingly erode regional security and stability. Egypt’s stalled transition represents a case study not in the limits of U.S influence, but in the consequences of the Obama administration’s consistent reluctance to play an active leadership role in the Middle East.
Elected to office on the promise that his administration would extricate the United States from the Middle East, President Obama has sought to refocus American foreign policy on Asia and minimize the U.S’s direct Middle East role. To that end, the President has limited the application of American power in the Middle East to four core national interests: protecting the sovereignty of states, preserving the free flow of oil, countering terrorism, and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
On issues that do not neatly satisfy these requirements, President Obama has preferred to empower regional partners to pursue shared interests and objectives. While this strategy could serve as a far less costly approach to advancing U.S interests, it is challenging to implement. In Egypt, where this strategy was most likely to succeed, the President’s leadership from behind failed to identify shared objectives, clearly delineate American interests, and establish a balance of incentives and penalties. As a result, Egypt has regressed.
The U.S and Egypt have a longstanding military to military relationship, and Egypt remains reliant on more than $1.5bn in US military and economic aid. Despite its enduring and historically successful influence over the Egyptian military, the administration has failed to utilize that influence on nearly every issue. Administration officials contend that cooperation with Egypt is essential for counterterrorism operations. Rather than holding the Egyptian military accountable for derailing democratic progress, the Obama administration unnecessarily tied aid to Egypt with cooperation on countering terrorism. Egypt shares America’s interest in pursuing counterterrorism in the Sinai, promoting regional stability and security, and maintaining peace with Israel. It’s unclear if Egypt would pivot away from these objectives in the absence of US aid.
Even if President Obama wanted to pressure Egypt to pursue reforms, the President now lacks the instruments to do so. The Obama administration gave the Egyptian military space to pursue its own interests and abort the Egyptian Arab Spring. Now, as President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ramps up repression, consolidates authoritarian rule, and pursues indiscriminate military action in the name of counterterrorism, the total number of insurgents in the North continues to increase and extremist ideologies are becoming more attractive. Paradoxically, President Obama’s dispensable compromise to preserve counterterrorism operations has led to greater disillusionment and anger as well as greater extremism and violence.