In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.
The ostensible reason for the holdup in aid is that the Egyptian government is a human-rights violator. Those concerns are accurate. Sisi’s government has been ruthless in cracking down on the same Muslim Brotherhood faction that was running the country until a popular coup brought it down in the summer of 2013. But contrary to the illusions of an Obama administration that hastened the fall of Hosni Mubarak and then foolishly embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successors, democracy was never one of the available options in Egypt.
The choice in Egypt remains stark. It’s either going to be run by Islamists bent on taking the most populous Arab country down the dark road of extremism or by a military regime that will keep that from happening. The obvious Western choice must be the latter, and Sisi has turned out to be an even better ally than Washington could have dreamed of, as he ensured that the Brotherhood would not return to power, took on Hamas in Gaza, and even made public calls for Muslims to turn against religious extremists.
But rather than that endearing him to the administration, this outstanding record has earned Sisi the Netanyahu treatment. Indeed, like other moderate Arab leaders in the Middle East, Sisi understands that President Obama has no great love for his country’s allies. Besotted as he is by the idea of bringing Iran in from the cold, the American government has allied itself with Tehran in the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria. He also understands that both of those ongoing wars were made far worse by the president’s dithering for years, a stance that may well have been motivated by a desire to avoid antagonizing Iran by seeking to topple their Syrian ally.
But those issues notwithstanding, one of the major changes that took place on President Obama’s watch was a conscious decision to downgrade relations with Cairo, a nation that his predecessors of both parties had recognized as a lynchpin of U.S. interests in the region. The current weapons supply squeeze is not only a blow to the efforts of a nation that is actually willing to fight ISIS and other Islamist terrorists; it’s a statement about what it means to be an American ally in the age of Obama.
As the Times of Israel reported:
On Monday Sisi was asked what he and the other Arab allies thought of U.S. leadership in the region. It is hard to put his response in words, mainly due to his prolonged silence.
“Difficult question,” he said after some moments, while his body language expressed contempt and disgust. “The suspending of US equipment and arms was an indicator for the public that the United States is not standing by the Egyptians.”
It turns out that although the American administration recently agreed to provide the Egyptian Air Force with Apache attack helicopters; it has been making it increasingly difficult for Cairo to make additional military purchases.
For example, the U.S. is delaying the shipment of tanks, spare parts and other weapons that the army desperately needs in its war against Islamic State.
This development raises serious questions not only about U.S.-Egyptian relations but the administration’s vision for the region.
This is, after all, a time when the administration is going all out to make common cause with Iran, an open enemy that is currently the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. President Obama is pursuing a diplomatic arrangement that will strengthen the Iranian regime and guarantee the survival of a nuclear program that moderate Arabs see as being as much of a threat to them as it is to Israel or the West.
The Egyptians understand that Washington isn’t interested in their friendship. Nor is the administration particularly supportive of Cairo’s efforts to rein in Hamas or to fight ISIS. Indeed, the Egyptians are now experiencing the same sort of treatment that has heretofore been reserved for the Israelis. That’s especially true in light of the arms resupply cutoff against Israel Obama ordered during last summer’s war in Gaza.
Despite flirting with Russia, Egypt may, like Israel, have no real alternative to the United States as an ally. Perhaps that’s why Obama takes it for granted. But if the U.S. is serious about fighting ISIS as opposed to just talking about it, Washington will have to start treating Egypt and its military as a priority rather than an embarrassment.