CAIRO – Egypt's likely next president, retired military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, says ties with the United States will improve after elections next week, confident that a strong show of public support will prove to the Americans that Egyptians wanted his ouster of the country's elected president, which threw relations between the two allies into their worst strains ever.
But it will likely be a troubled road toward warming the chill between Cairo and Washington. Egypt's security forces have waged a fierce crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. Asked in a recent TV interview about possible political reconciliation with the Islamist group – a goal Washington has advocated – el-Sissi barked, "No."
El-Sissi, considered certain to win presidential elections taking place Monday and Tuesday, has made clear he wants better ties – but on his terms. The retired field marshal has also raised worries in Egypt and the United States over potential restrictions on freedoms and civil rights, with his tough line against dissent as he pushes for stability he says is needed to repair the economy.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, described the Egyptian-US relations as in a moment of reflection because direction is not clear.
Both sides "know their relations are important. They value the cooperation ... but publicly they are reluctant to engage," Wittes said.
El-Sissi removed Morsi on July 3 after protests by millions demanding that the Islamist leader go – and since then, supporters of the move have furiously rejected the idea that it was a military coup, saying the ouster was the people's will.
After much deliberation, Washington decided not to declare it a coup, a step that would have required a cut-off in aid. Still, after hundreds of Morsi's protesting supporters were killed in an escalating crackdown in August, the United States withheld millions of the more than $1.5 billion in aid a year that it provides Egypt – mostly to the military.
Also, Washington left the post of its ambassador in Cairo vacant after the departure of Anne Patterson – now an assistant secretary of state – who was fiercely criticized by many Egyptians who accused her of supporting the Brotherhood.
Since Morsi's ouster, Egyptian media have been enflamed with anger at the United States, accusing it of backing the Brotherhood, raising conspiracy theories about the United States working with the Islamists to divide Egypt.
El-Sissi has avoided that sort of rhetoric. In interviews with Egyptian media the past weeks, he has said he understands the U.S. has laws that require it to take the steps. He has also insisted Washington must understand why he and the military acted, both in Morsi's ouster and the ensuing crackdown, in which hundreds have been killed and thousands arrested.
"We are giving them the chance to see," he said of the Americans in one TV interview. "We always tell them ... 'See us with Egyptian eyes. Live our reality.'"
He added that the election will show the U.S. and the Europeans that the Egyptian people are behind him. "The relation will only return to warmth when the people go in millions to vote."
He has also put forward a common cause for better relations, warning of a rise of militancy in Egypt, Syria and Libya. "The international community must cooperate to deal with terrorism, and we are with them," he said. Otherwise, "they will have problems," he said, pointing to European citizens fighting in al-Qaida-inspired groups in Syria's civil war or in Libya.
Security cooperation is one area where the alliance has continued. Egypt has been working closely with the U.S. and with Israel in its offensive against Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula – on the border with Israel – who have stepped up a campaign of bombings and other attacks since Morsi's ouster. In April, Egyptian intelligence chief Mohammed Farid al-Tohamy visited Washington for talks with Secretary of State John Kerry.
After al-Tohamy, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy also met with Kerry in Washington, a trip seen as a sign of easing tensions. "It's like a marriage. It's not a fling; it's not a one-night affair," Fahmy said of relations with the U.S. "It's going to take time ... Any marriage has its hiccups."
During the visit, Kerry certified to Congress that Egypt is upholding its peace treaty with Israel and strategic commitments to the U.S., freeing up $680 million in assistance. The Pentagon also released a hold on the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt to help its military combat extremists.
But such $650 million is in jeopardy after Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, raised objections on the Senate floor. Kerry has not yet certified that Egypt is meeting the democratic standards required for the remainder of the $1.5 billion in U.S. assistance to be sent.
Kerry said Egypt has made progress in its democratic transition but that it needs to address "disturbing" problems. "We really are looking for certain things to happen that will give people the sense of confidence about this road ahead," he said. "It's actions, not words that will make the difference."
Washington-based Middle East Institute scholar Mohammed Elmenshawi said, "Washington is leaving the door half open."
"They are watching for free elections, they are watching for signs of reconciliation knowing that keeping pressure on political Islam won't work on the long run," he said.
Wrangling over the U.S. ambassador has also been a sore point. Patterson departed soon after Morsi's overthrow, and the Obama administration initially suggested Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, to fill the Cairo post. But it didn't nominate him after objections from Egyptian officials. Egyptian media had been depicting Ford as having a pro-Islamist agenda.
It was months until the administration finally put forward a nominee, earlier in May – Stephen Beecroft, the current ambassador in Iraq.
"Finding an alternative was not high in the administration," said Jon Alterman, a prominent Egypt expert who directs the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The U.S. won't be begging Egyptian government to have an ambassador. If you don't want Ford, we will wait."
"There is growing sense that Egypt is not embracing liberal democratic principles ... that government effort to crackdown will actually lead to violence, polarization and increase the problem of extremism rather end it," said Jon Alterman.