— The sweeping victory of former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in the presidential election is part of a continuing diplomatic dilemma for the Obama administration and its Egypt policies, analysts say.
Sissi received more than 90 percent of the vote amid allegations of foul play and little independent monitoring of the low voter turnout last week. A crackdown on opposition forces notwithstanding, little dissent was voiced throughout Egypt.
Sissi’s election comes after the military ouster last year of Egypt's first democratically-elected civilian president Mohamed Morsi, who is in detention.
In his foreign policy address at West Point this week, U.S President Barack Obama walked a fine diplomatic line, analysts say.
“In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests – from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism,” he said.
Despite an outcry from international human rights groups against the Egyptian military leadership, Presidents Obama said that the U.S. has not cut off cooperation with the new Egyptian government.
He said that his administration can and will persistently press for the reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.
Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East said the U.S. is caught between promoting American ideals and maintaining its national interests.
“The U.S. message is confused because it is pursuing a lot of different priorities in Egypt; it has been trying to say that the defense and security relationship is very important, but on the other hand the U.S. is very concerned about violence and political repression.” Hawthorne said.
If Washington moved forward with a large portion of U.S. military aid that was previously suspended, Hawthorne said the U.S. would give the impression that political violence and ongoing repression in Egypt were no longer as important to the U.S.
But Paul Salem, a policy analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that President Obama was clear about U.S. strategic priorities in the Middle East
“One: combatting terrorism, two: Israel as a super ally, three: free flow of oil from the (Persian) Gulf and last: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said.
Analysts say Sissi wants to ensure that the $1.5 billion in annual aid from the U.S. continues to arrive. Most of that aid goes to supporting the military.
His campaign remarks reflected a conciliatory tone to the U.S., stressing the importance of continued strategic relations between Washington and Cairo.
But analyst Hawthorne said he expects a lot of tensions between Egypt and the U.S. under Sissi’s leadership.
“Sissi indicated that he wants the relationship to be on his terms, which basically means that the U.S. should accept his narrative of Egypt’s political trajectory and his approach to governance,” she said. “I do not think the U.S. is ready to do that.”
Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that U.S.- Egyptian relations are at a moment of reflection.
“Both sides know closer relations are important, but the problem is that neither wants to engage with the other from a position of weakness,” she said.
But former Egyptian presidential candidate and former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa called for a new paradigm for U.S.–Egyptian relations.
“We should embark on an immediate consideration of what kind of relationship both sides wish to have as the U.S. can no longer tell the Egyptian president what she wants and expects he would simply oblige,” he said.
Moussa, who joined Sissi’s presidential campaign called on the U.S. to stop linking aid to Egypt with political developments in Cairo to avoid any further souring in bilateral relations.
Conspiracy theories prevalent in Egypt’s media have created another problem for the future of U.S.–Egyptian relations. Egypt’s media has accused the U.S. conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai for example.
“This is a real problem because such planted stories are being shared by the state media and government sources. The U.S. should speak out and directly contradict these reports; otherwise it gives the impression that they might be correct.” Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.
Dunne says because the U.S. has invested tens of billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to Egypt over almost 40 years it does not want to walk away from a country that has a very important geostrategic location.
“The U.S. fears that Egypt is entering a period of ongoing and perhaps escalating instability which is not good for a security partner in the region,” said Dunne. She says American policy toward Egypt since the 2011 revolution has been indecisive at times, but it has been driven by one constant imperative; get along with whoever is in power in order to continue security cooperation.
Her recommendation: The U.S. should focus on supporting the Egyptian people and refrain from confining its support to the Egyptian government or the military.
“I think the U.S. should make the investment with the Egyptian people in education and other fields that can help them having better lives over the long run,” Dunne said.