WASHINGTON, D.C.—Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords on March 26, 1979, in Washington, D.C., formally ending 31 years of war. The pact has kept the two nations from open conflict for the last 34 years, but it also meant Egypt switched sides: The oldest, largest, and most influential country in the Middle East turned its back on Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and helped the United States replace Russia as the power broker in the region.
Many observers are concerned Egypt could flip sides again after the Obama administration in early October acknowledged it is suspending some military aid, including tanks, aircraft, missiles, and $260 million in cash. The United States already had been withholding support for the Egyptian military that ousted Mohamed Morsi in July, but many believe formally severing ties—even if only in part—could undermine U.S. influence and Middle East stability.
“During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them,” said Democrat Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, adding that he’s “frustrated” with the administration’s refusal to consult Congress on its Egypt policy.
The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibits the United States from sending aid to countries where a military coup has taken place, but the president can waive the exemption, as other presidents have done. Members of a recent U.S. delegation to Egypt argue the military assisted in a popular revolt—not a coup—in a country that had no impeachment mechanism.
The administration said it wants to see more rapid movement toward democracy in Egypt, but those expectations may be unrealistic, according to Sebastian Gorka, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who was part of the delegation: “It’s clear the White House wanted a constitution yesterday and an election tomorrow,” he told me. “[Egyptian leaders] pleaded with us to please give them time to get it right.”
The delegation met with, among others, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of the Egyptian military; Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church; and Amr Moussa, president of Egypt’s 50-member Constitutional Committee—which hopes to draft a new constitution by the end of October. Tawadros and other Egyptian Christian leaders are supportive of the interim government and attribute recent violence against Christians and churches to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sisi, a Muslim who attended the U.S. Army War College, saw his existing popularity reach new heights after the U.S. decision to cut aid, solidifying the view that America backs the Muslim Brotherhood—and terrorism. “The young people kept asking, ‘Why does the United States support terrorists?’” said retired U.S. Army Col. Kenneth Allard, a member of the delegation. “They consider the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists.”
The delegation said Egyptians still consider themselves friends of the American people, but they can’t figure out what the U.S. government is doing and why. For Gorka, the decision to scale back aid couldn’t have come at a worse time—as Egypt struggles to secure its borders and repel al-Qaeda–affiliated foreign fighters. U.S. support for counterterrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt shares a border with Israel, will continue.
Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, who co-led the delegation, told me he’s planning a second trip he hopes will lend further U.S. support during Egypt’s transition.
Some Israelis expressed concern that the U.S.-Egypt rift could give Egypt less reason to honor the Camp David Accords, but the two countries still maintain a strong common enemy in the Muslim Brotherhood. A more likely outcome is increased Russian influence in the region: Russia has already offered arms and sent high-level delegations to meet with Egyptian leaders.
“Any inch Obama loses, another power will gain, and we will not mind,” an Egyptian official told The Jerusalem Post.