The United States has many strategic national interests in Egypt. We receive preferential access to the Suez Canal. The 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel has long served to keep peace between the two most powerful militaries in the region. Given the al Qaeda havens and support provided by chaos in other countries around the region, a stable Egypt serves as a security linchpin in the ongoing “War on Terror”.

This is why some found it surprising when the U.S. failed to back up long-time ally Hosni Mubarak when he faced growing civil unrest in 2010. The U.S. supported a vague concept of “democracy” and called for reforms. The U.S. did not call for him to step down at first, unlike Gadhafi in Libya and Assad in Syria. However, as the public protests escalated, President Obama encouraged a transition led by Egypt’s vice-president, Omar Suleiman. The U.S. decided to tell Mubarak that he should step aside after the transition, which he agreed to do.

The protests continued however, and called for the immediate resignation of Mubarak. Then, in a public statement Obama said, “An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” This angered the people around Mubarak, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, who felt betrayed that the U.S. was going against what they saw as its word.

Ultimately, the transition led to Egypt’s first free democratic election. Muslim Brotherhood party candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected and sworn in on June 30, 2012. Then, as the Constitution was being drafted in November, members of liberal parties and Egypt’s churches withdraw from the assembly in protest of actions by Islamic parties. This drew criticism from the U.S. with fears that the country is becoming dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of secularists and other freedom concerns. Despite protesters marching on the presidential palace, the referendum went along on schedule and was passed with 63.8% of those voting in favor.

In June of 2013, massive protests were organized against Morsi’s rule. The Media reports turnout in the millions, however some of these are later said to be overblown. On July 3, Egypt’s military removed Morsi from power in what can only be called a coup d’etat. This poses significant problems for the U.S. because U.S. law states that all foreign aid must end in the event of a coup. This would end $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt, $1.33 billion of which goes to the military. To sidestep this issue, President Obama has refrained from publicly calling the military actions a coup. The administration has instead waited and then taken steps to temporarily halt aid to Egypt, pending further review.

On July 8, Egyptian soldiers opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators who were demanding his reinstatement as president. Protests continued, and on August 14 riot police with armored vehicles and bulldozers demolished the pro-Morsi encampments. The next day, the Interior Ministry authorized police to use deadly force and live ammunition against protesters who started to target police and state institutions in retaliation against the crackdown. Casualties are sustained by both sides, but the heaviest casualties are reported from the pro-Morsi protesters, with estimates exceeding 900 dead.

In response to the escalating violence, President Obama cancelled annual Bright Star military exercises with the Egyptian military and froze the transfer of F-16 fighters. In a speech while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard he said, “America will work with all those in Egypt.” He added, “All parties need to have a voice in Egypt’s future.”

In contrast to America’s hesitant condemnation of the military actions, U.S. allies Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have all publicly backed Egypt’s military. The Gulf States put together a $12 billion aid package, dwarfing the size of current U.S. aid. They voiced support for what the Egyptian military has called attempts to counter “violent acts of terror” being perpetrated.

What remains is a series of bad options for U.S. Foreign Policy. U.S. interests in following laws, supporting democracy, supporting regional allies, accessing the Suez Canal, preventing civil war, and maintaining a good relationship with the Egyptian military are all at odds. There is no clear cut best case scenario; all scenarios are varying degrees of dismal. The arms “liberated” from Gadhafi’s neighboring Libya could easily find their way into the hands of an insurgent group in Egypt. The probability of a full blown civil war is high, and officials are worried that Egypt will soon turn into the next Syria. The only certainty is that the violence will not be brought to a swift end.

Additional Resources

The Wall Street Journal, Egypt’s Former President Mubarak May Be Freed:

The Wall Street Journal, The True Nature of a Coup Revealed:

The Wall Street Journal, Egypt, U.S. on Collision Course:

Reuters, Egyptian Crackdown Hands al Qaeda New Lease on Life:

The Guardian, Egypt Condemns European Union Threats to Halt Aid as Death Toll Rises:

Foreign Policy, A Model of American Opacity:

Foreign Policy, Egypt to Media: Don’t you Dare Distort Our War on Terror:

Foreign Policy, Things Fall Apart:

Foreign Policy, Gulf Islamist Dissent Over Egypt:

Foreign Policy, A Path Out for Egypt:

Bloomberg, One Small Way To End U.S. Hypocrisy in Egypt:

The Wall Street Journal, Allies Thwart America in Egypt:

The Washington Post, Saving Egypt from Syria’s Fate:

Reuters, Egypt Arrests Muslim Brotherhood’s Leader:

CNN, U.S. Temporarily Holds Up Some Military Aid to Egypt:

The Wall Street Journal, A Policy on Egypt—Support Al Sisi:

Haaretz, Key Events in Egypt Over Two Years of Turmoil and Transition:


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