Steven Cook

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.


More than three decades later, the successful Camp David Accords are behind us, but how effective have they been in stabilizing the region?

Well, the Camp David Accords and the subsequent Egypt/Israel Peace Treaty certainly stabilized the relationship between Egypt and Israel, which had been a state of war since Israel’s founding in 1948. The peace treaty was extraordinarily successful in undermining a war option for the Arabs against Israel. Syria alone, Jordan alone, certainly Lebanon alone, even Iraq would not be able to undertake a war against Israel without Egyptian assistance. So certainly the Camp David Accords and the Peace Treaty have gone a remarkable way of stabilizing a region that for decades had known major regional wars.

How has Israel benefited?

Well obviously the Israelis, over the course of 30 years, since the Accords have been signed, have not had to devote military resources to their border with Egypt in ways that they once did. As a result of the treaty, they don’t have to worry about a coordinated Arab war against them. This has, from the perspective of the Arabs, released the Israelis to pursue their interests in an unfretted manner throughout the region.

Since the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the Israelis have invaded Lebanon a number of times, stayed for a couple of decades, continued to settle in the West Bank and the Gaza strip until Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the strip in 2005, and annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. So from the perspective of the Arab world, in particular Egyptians, the treaty has not necessarily benefited all parties, it has certainly benefited Israel at the expense of the Arab world.

What kind of backlash have we seen, and are we seeing, in regards to how the Egyptians perceive the U.S. and Israel?

Of course the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt is a bilateral relationship, but there is a trilateral logic to the bilateral relationship. That is that Americans, American officials, members of Congress; tend to value the quality of U.S./Egypt relations through the prism of Egyptian/Israeli relations. Thos relations have been good up until the uprising and obviously the major change that occurred with Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February 2011.

Suddenly, the peace treaty and the Camp David Accords are open to question. That’s not to suggest that the Egyptians are going to break the treaty. But there is a popular, which was once an opposition and now a revolutionary, narrative about the peace treaty; that it was a shameful, separate peace, that Egypt abdicated it’s responsibility to the Palestinian issue by signing a treaty with the Israelis that did not obligate the Israelis to come to some sort of agreement with the Palestinians. Over the course of many years, the Egyptians have seen how the Israelis have settled in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, until Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip in 2005; and how the Israelis have pursued their interests in the region and the Egyptians have been left on the sidelines.

This has made the Egyptians feel quite weak. As a result, in the post Mubarak period there have been calls for renegotiation of certain aspects of the treaty between Egypt and Israel. One popular measure that the Egyptians would like to renegotiate is, what was in the treaty, a deal that would send Egyptian oil to Israel, has now become a gas agreement, they would like to cancel that agreement. The other part of the treaty, the critical part of the treaty that they would like to renegotiate is Egypt’s limited sovereignty in the Sinai Peninsula. As a result of the treaty, Egyptians are restricted in how much military force they can have in the Sinai Peninsula. They would like to renegotiate that; given, one, the instability in the Sinai Peninsula, and two, what is widely regarded among Egyptians as an unfair limit on Egypt’s sovereignty in it’s own territory.

Has U.S. military assistance assistance helped Egypt over the years?

Well since the early 1980s, the U.S. has given Egypt $1.3 billion in military assistance on an annual basis. It’s interesting given the deep military ties between the U.S. and Egypt, nobody is quite sure how much that $1.3 billion contributes to the Egyptian budget. Is that 10% of the military budget, 5%, is it 20% of the military budget? We do know, however, that Egyptians value this assistance. Even though they now complain 25 years heads that most of this money needs to be spent in the U.S. on American military equipment with American service contracts as part of the package deal. If you do the math, that $1.3 billion which began in 1983, as a result of inflation is really only worth 40 to 50% of what it once was. So, it’s not as big a number as we have made it out to be. Of course, over many years this has come to about $65-70 billion, which the U.S. has underwritten the Egyptian military budget.

And, since the Arab Spring, are the U.S. and other allies threatened by what the outcome is?

I wouldn’t say the U.S. is threatened as a result of the Arab uprisings. I think that there is major change in the region. Leaders like Hosni Mubarak in particular were central figures in a regional political border that included Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the small Gulf States. That made it relatively easier and relatively less expensive for the U.S. to pursue its interests and objectives in the region. Now that Hosni Mubarak isn’t there, the other countries in the region are under pressure; it’s going to be a lot harder for the U.S. to convince these countries to align themselves with the U.S. The uprisings in the Arab world, and particularly in Egypt, were not about the U.S., but they were about national empowerment and dignity. And, to the extent that Egyptians in particular believed that the alignment with Washington had a negative effect on their own power and standing and influence in the region, you can reasonably expect that new Egyptian leaders are going to pursue a foreign policy more independent from Washington.

What are some of the specific instances where Egypt has assisted the U.S. in the U.S. goals for the region?

Well, overall Egypt has calculated that supporting the U.S. in the peace process has been something that has benefited their interests – at least that’s what Mubarak calculated – I think people are aware that the Israelis have imposed a blockade on the Gaza strip, for example. What people forget is that the Egyptians have also imposed a blockade on the Gaza strip under Hosni Mubarak. There was a real confluence of views between Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington on the threat that the Gaza strip posed to Israel after the mini war between Palestinian factions in 2007. Another good example of this is the dispatch of 35,000 Egyptian troops to the Saudi desert as part of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in late 1990 and early 1991. By and large Egyptians did not support this deployment, they regarded it as an intrusion of foreign forces into the region. This was, of course, a high point for U.S.-Egypt relations, but on a popular level people didn’t support it. And then more recently, Egypt has played a very quiet, a very under the radar role in providing logistical support for the U.S. for its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq invasion in particular was an issue that was profoundly unpopular among the Egyptian public. In fact on March 19, 2003, the opening day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, tens of thousands of people descended on Tahrir Square in central Cairo to denounce the American invasion and to declare that a truly democratic Egypt, truly democratic elected leaders accounted to their people would oppose American policies in the region rather than quietly and tacitly go along with our policies in the region.

Over the years would you say the support of the U.S. to Egypt extended Mubarak’s powerbase in Egypt and allowed him to stay longer?

It’s very hard to measure whether U.S. support extended Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Certainly there is something to be said about superpower patronage that helps leaders that gives them the kind of diplomatic and political support to do the things they do. I think American officials, former and present, would say that Mubarak was an ally of the U.S. He kept the peace with Israel, he kept the Suez Canal open, and he kept the Islamists down. And, all those things track very closely to American interests in the region. But Mubarak had resources of his own that kept himself in power. He was able to co-opt important parts of the Egyptian political elite and he was able through sophisticated, internal security establishment for many, many years, keep Egyptians opposition divided and in fear.

What is the struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood, the youth, and the Egyptian military? Is there a confrontation?

I think there’s a number of levels of competition and struggle going on in Egypt post-Mubarak. One in a broad abstract: Egyptians are engaged in a national debate about what kind of government they want, what the relationship is between religion and government, what Egypt stands for, what it’s place is in the region. All of these issues are being discussed and debated vehemently across the political spectrum, up and down Egypt. And that is a very healthy debate, that is a debate that Egyptians are having for the first time in a relatively open political environment.

The other struggles are what social scientists would call incumbent-level political struggles; struggles between different elites and among leaders. Certainly if you ask the activists that instigated the uprising, an outcome in which a Muslim Brotherhood leader would be elected president, is not the outcome that they had desired. They are, to this point, willing to give the new president Muhammad Morsi the chance, but they are dedicated to defeating him at the ballot box. There has also been over the course of an 18 month transition between Mubarak’s fall and the election of the new president Muhammad Morsi; a struggle between the military, under the guise of what was called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed executive power after Mubarak’s fall; and the revolutionaries, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, over what the future trajectory of Egypt would be.

Now, the military officers were all appointed by Mubarak, were all the descendents of the free officers who founded the Egyptian regime in the 1950s; wanted to salvage as much as they could from the previous political party. Since Muhammad Morsi came to power, he’s been successful in cultivating a rung of younger, ambitious officers, and promoting them at the expense of the more senior officers who took control of the country after Mubarak’s fall. We don’t yet know whether this is just a moment of civilian supremacy or that the military will once again return to it’s deeply influential but behind the scenes role in Egyptian politics.

How is Morsi viewed by policymakers in the U.S.?

Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s new president, is a view that not many people knew before he became Egypt’s new first civilian Islamist freely elected president. There is a connection to the U.S.; he did earn a degree in engineering from the University of Southern California, which is an interesting background. He has a known type of personality, a kind of fighting personality; when he sat in Egyptian parliament between 2000 and 2005, he led a faction of independent Muslim Brotherhood members of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s lower House of Parliament.

Under his leadership, he sought to hold the then ruling party to account for various issues; most commonly the charge that was leveled against the National Democratic Party was corruption, and corruption of the government. He was in many ways an accidental president. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Party, the Freedom and Justice party, had actually nominated another Muslim Brotherhood leader to run for president in the spring of 2012, but he was declared ineligible to run for president and Morsi was elevated to that role.

There wasn’t much that was expected of Morsi, but he has, a very short time after becoming president, demonstrated an independence and effort to depart from the past on foreign policy and has demonstrated that fighting spirit that he had while he was in the Parliament. But it’s not all good news. I think by the way Morsi has approached the press in particular, raises questions about his, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s, commitment to the revolutionary ideals of building a democratic and just society in Egypt.

What are some of the things Morsi has done since taking office?

In a very short period of time, Morsi has made a number of moves, both domestically and on the foreign policy front, that have made people take notice. Most importantly at home, he has forced the resignations of the senior military command that administered Egypt between Hosni Mubarak’s fall and Morsi’s election. This was extraordinary because the balance in civil military relations in Egypt has always favored the military officers. And in fact, just prior to Morsi’s election, the officers issued a constitutional decree that essentially gutted the Egyptian presidency of its powers in foreign policy, national security, and defense policy; decision making.

Well when he fired the senior command, he took all of those powers back; he cancelled the constitutional decree. On the foreign policy front, Morsi has visited China, secured 5 billion dollars in investment, has gone to the meeting of the Nonalign movement in Tehran-the first time an Egyptian leader has visited Iran in 30 years. He has denounced Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as illegitimate and he has signaled his intention to pursue a more independent foreign policy from the U.S., than of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. In a relatively short period of time, those are important achievements, but with some of those positive things, Morsi has continued the Egyptian government control over the press -journalists and editors continue to be under pressure – and have thus far not been able to deliver much on the economic front, but, of course, Egypt’s economic needs are vast.

Obviously in this new age for Egypt and the region, what does Egypt’s role look like in respect to influence?

Well it’s no secret that in the latter part of the Mubarak period, Egypt’s traditional influence in the Middle East had waned. Egypt was not a player in regional crises or regional councils. The hope is, among Egypt’s new leaders, that Egypt will be able to regain some of its regional luster. I think it would be an exaggeration for them to believe that they can return to the period of the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt was an unparalleled leader of the region. But if the Egyptians are successful in pursuing a policy that is independent of the U.S. in the region, I think it’s quite likely that they will once again be a player in the region.

Its influence was damaged, both by Egyptians as well as other Arabs, that Egypt was just a lackey of the U.S. The early moves that the new president Muhammad Morsi has made in signally a shift in foreign policy, in pursuing a more independent foreign policy from the U.S., has already rebounded to Egypt’s benefit. The Egyptians are signaling that they are back in the region in a big way and hope to be influential.

Where does Egypt sit in regards to Iran, the U.S., and Israel?

The Iranian challenge is perhaps the single biggest challenge to the U.S. faces in the region right now in the Middle East. Egypt figures into the Israel-Iran-U.S. equation because Egypt is the largest, by population, Arab country and an influential one. There were some early fears that the Egyptians would align themselves with the Iranians. Certainly with Morsi’s visit to Tehran for the Nonalign summit, those fears were seemingly coming to fruition. But in fact, Egypt is a large, Arab, Sunni state that has pretensions to be a regional leader; against the backdrop of Iran, a large Persian predominantly Shiite country that also has ambitions to lead the Middle East. That’s a recipe for strategic competitors rather than strategic cooperation. So, while it may not necessarily be that Cairo lines up closely with Israel and the U.S., that there’s no daylight between Cairo and Jerusalem and Washington on Iran. Certainly, the Egyptians do not want to see the Iranians lead the region; they certainly do not want to see the Iranians proliferate nuclear weapons in the region.

If you were advising U.S. policymakers, what path would you suggest the U.S. take with Egypt?

Well Egypt’s transition is far from complete, and I think that given Washington’s history in Egypt over the course of the past 30 years, and despite the fact that the U.S. has done some wonderful things in Egypt in terms of Egypt’s infrastructure development, in terms of the Egyptian public health care system, in terms of Egyptian education and preservation of antiquities; the revolutionary narrative about the U.S. role in Egypt has been the support of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian institutions. As a result, during Egypt’s transition, the U.S. needs to take a lower profile than it once did. It can’t be seen as trying to manage or influence Egypt’s transition.

So my advice to American policymakers is essentially to stick to first principles; to voicing Washington support for democracy, for accountability, for transparency, and for equal application of the law. And wait for the Egyptians to ask for American assistance, rather than for U.S. officials to be seen as offering unsolicited advice about how the Egyptians should go about their democratic transition at home, and how to pursue their foreign policy in their own region.

Is the U.S. helping Egypt by reducing their debt and supporting an IMF loan?

Well Washington’s debt relief, the proposal that Washington should forgive $1 billion of Egypt’s $3.5 billion in debt to the U.S. is largely symbolic. Overall, Egypt’s external debt is 35 billion dollars, and its total debt; both domestic and external debt is about $190 billion. The idea in forgiving $1 billion is to signal to the IMF and other holders of Egyptian debt, that they should be forthcoming because Egypt’s economic needs are great. Certainly the $1 billion from the U.S., the $4.8 billion from the IMF are a drop in the bucket of what Egypt really needs, but again the idea is to send a signal to the international community that Egypt is a place that needs investment, that is a sound investment, and that the international community can make a difference in Egypt going forward. It’s unlikely to be on the political front and more likely to be on the economic front.