The tête-à-tête may appear, on the surface, to be a case of powerful forces colliding.
Back from Cairo to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Martin Dempsey relayed the outcome of last weekend’s summit with his Egyptian counterparts. Relations hit a speed-bump in January after black-clad security units rolled up U.S.-funded organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI). Since then, the Obama administration has attempted to rescue a group of Americans holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, free 19 citizens charged by the state, and restore U.S.-Egyptian ties all at once.
"I spent about a day-and-half in conversation with them, encouraging them in the strongest possible terms to resolve this so that our military-to-military relationship could continue," Dempsey said of his meetings with General Hussein Tantawi and Lt. General Sami Anan. "I am convinced that potentially they were underestimating the impact of this on our relationship. When I left there, there was no doubt that they understood the seriousness of it."
Despite the tough rhetoric and actions on both sides, Dempsey and Tantawi represent two forces battling to maintain their influence in post-Mubarak Egypt. The collective strength of Washington and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has been infected with weakness, forcing them to expend maximum energy on protecting their interests. Human rights activist Hossam Bahgat warns, “The consistent message of vilification of human rights has become much worse since these raids and these indictments.” In response to the SCAF’s raids and ensuing campaign against them, the U.S. Senate has urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to approve $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance unless the situation is resolved.
Yet the current balance of power suggests that the SCAF is winning its game of chicken with Washington. Clinton can waive the Senate’s advisory by invoking America’s national security, but the SCAF is betting on the fact that most Egyptians don’t accept U.S. financial support with strings attached. Unless the Obama administration is willing to cut off political support, an unlikely possibility, Washington has few cards to play against the SCAF. The generals appear to realize that they hold the upper hand and, after marking Dempsey’s return to Washington with a sheet of charges against NGO staff, Egyptian officials proceeded to launch a verbal blitzkrieg on America as a whole.
According to International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, “The American determination and persistence to support these organizations to engage in political activities is a blatant violation of the law, which represents clear harm to national security.”
Like the NGO case, Naga’s comments could reflect weakness even though the SCAF is attempting to display its strength. Her comments stem from testimony given to two judges in October, and some activists are questioning the level of coordination over the release of her statements. Oppositional elements accuse the SCAF of timing its raids to November’s parliamentary election and wielding anti-U.S. rhetoric to stunt demands for an accelerated transition to civilian rule. As for Naga’s statements (published by the state-run MENA and major dailies), political analyst Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid cautioned, "It looks like an escalation, but I don't know if it is intended or it reflects a state of confusion in the conduct of domestic and foreign policies in Egypt.”
The New York Times would later report a rift between Tantawi and Naga, who is keen to secure U.S. aid on the government’s terms. In any event, the SCAF’s overall escalation against Washington indicates that the generals believe they hold the high ground. Instead of making any sincere attempt to repair damaged ties, Egypt’s interim government dutifully submitted its charges to Washington and proceeded to accuse the White House of wishing ill fortune on Egyptians.
"Evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt, but in the whole region," Naga was quoted as saying. “But the United States and Israel could not directly create and sustain a state of chaos, so they used direct funding, especially American, as the means to reach those goals...”
“When presented this way, most Egyptians side with their army and against the Americans,” Bahgat predicted.
Many of Naga’s statements are embedded with kernels of truth. The Minister claims that Egypt’s “January 25 revolution was a surprise to the United States, and that it was out of America’s control, when the revolution transformed into a massive popular uprising all over Egypt.” She added that Washington “tried to hijack the January 25 revolution and manipulate the situation in Egypt in accordance with its interests.” These factual statements are aimed at Egypt’s midsection, but Naga’s words cannot distract revolutionaries from the SCAF’s own hijacking or the Obama administration's support for Tantawi’s “transition.”
Dempsey’s visit to Cairo is thus rendered a bluff. Like all preceding U.S. officials, his single-minded emphasis on NGOs amplifies Washington’s counter-revolutionary tone. The White House and Pentagon would like nothing more than to bury the NGO controversy and return to praising the SCAF’s “leadership.” Egypt’s generals (and former members of Mubarark’s regime) realize that they can back Washington down and escape with minimal damage; Port Said’s tragedy and two weeks of protests were effortlessly ignored. The Obama administration may not lay down a large check, but it is equally unlikely to demand accountability for the SCAF’s politico-security crackdown.
So what reason does Tantawi and company have to change their behavior?