(MENAFN - Arab News) When President Muhammad Mursi, the first democratically elected leader in the history of Egypt, arrived in New York this week to attend the UN General Assembly meeting, he extended his arms in friendship toward the United States.
A fortnight prior, his country's diplomatic status had been pulled out from underneath him when a highly significant - and almost certainly prepared - remark seemingly reversed forty years of carefully crafted efforts of friendship between the US and Egypt. Whilst caught briefly it was quickly dropped, diverted by other events in the region. On a larger political scale it was quite astonishing and deserves to be revisited.
In a television appearance on Sept. 12, President Barack Obama was asked, "Would you consider the current Egyptian regime an ally of the United States?" Suddenly in one short sentence, a revision of decades of US foreign policy entered the public record.
"I don't think that we would consider them an ally," answered President Obama, "but we don't consider them an enemy." It is hard to believe that as a law professor the president was unaware that legally Egypt was very much an ally.
A day after the interview, a White House spokesman tried to reverse the fallout from the statement and said, "I think folks are reading way too much into this " We don't have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies."
Oh how false this was. This clarification only furthered the inaccuracy, the phrase "when in a hole stop digging" springing to mind.
Egypt is a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) member. In fact, when Congress first passed the Section 2350a Title 10 law (otherwise known as the Nunn Amendment) in 1989, Egypt was the first Middle Eastern country on the list of five member-nations, added before Israel and after Australia. Granted special privileges of co-operation - particularly within the security, R&D and technology areas - benefits of the alliance included priority delivery of military surplus materials, depleted uranium anti-tank rounds, defense training, and permission for US Department of Defense tenders. Until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Egypt had traditionally been the beneficiary of the second-largest US foreign aid amounts (1.5 billion) per year behind Israel (3 billion), for decades. It was not until 1996 that the next Arab state, Jordan, joined the exclusive list of MNNA members. By 2012, there are still only fifteen countries with non-NATO ally status.
Before his arrival in New York and on the heels of the public snub, President Mursi attempted to reach out for dialogue with President Obama. Given the cold shoulder, the rejected Egyptian president dropped the matter. When asked by the New York Times for his opinion of President Obama's assertion that his country was no longer an ally, Mursi said that as far as he was concerned America and Egypt were "real friends." But, he reminded, Egyptians were well aware that it was "American taxpayer money" that had effectively bought "the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region" in a continuing pattern of support for Israel and dictators.
It was Richard Nixon who affirmed the end of US-Egyptian hostilities when in 1974 he confirmed Ashraf Ghorbal as the new Egyptian Ambassador to the United States. "We are today ending the estrangement," Ambassador Ghorbal stated plainly. Egypt was "looking ahead to a rapprochement of cooperation and good-friendship." Two years later, Egypt officially severed its treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union.
Having come to power in 1970, President Anwar Sadat expressed his gratitude for the now-firm US-Egyptian alliance, which he said clearly reflected "the bonds of friendship and amity which exist today between our nations." During the Ford administration, President Sadat confirmed the everlasting "friendship between the American and Egyptian peoples"" The camaraderie between President Jimmy Carter and President Sadat is well known, and the 1978 Camp David Accords that resulted in a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979 also resulted in President Sadat's assassination less than three years later. Before he was killed, President Sadat attended Ronald Reagan's Annual State Dinner in 1981, whereupon he promised America that Egypt was "determined to cement this friendship even further" and their meeting reaffirmed "an everlasting friendship with you."
In January 1988, President Reagan welcomed President Hosni Mubarak to the White House, and during the toast to Sadat's successor reinforced the friendship between the US and Egypt no less than 13 times. Egypt was "a friend of the United States" and the visit would "celebrate the solid friendship between our countries" which was, Reagan reiterated, "a lasting one."
Although souring during the Gulf War, relations between the US and Egypt held, and when Iraq invaded Kuwait Dick Cheney met with President Mubarak to thank him for permitting US Air Force jets flyover rights over Egyptian airspace. He was "a good man and a good friend and ally of the United States, and we need to remember that," proclaimed Cheney.
With Bill Clinton in office, President Mubarak considered the "ever-growing friendship" between Egypt and the United States solidified once again. Later in 2002, "seething" over President George W. Bush's absence in the Israeli-Palestinian ongoing crisis, Mubarak felt undermined by America. Thousands of Palestinians having been killed and Egyptians rioting in the streets in anger, Mubarak was disappointed with Washington's "distance" and the failure to live up to promises President Bush had given to Arab leaders. Nevertheless, Egypt's status as an ally of the US remained unchanged. Confirmed President Bush in 2008, "the United States has a longstanding friendship with Egypt. " Our friendship with Egypt is deep and broad. Egypt will continue to be a vital strategic partner of the United States."
And in his much anticipated "A New Beginning" speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama pledged much to the Arab world, like so many US presidents before.
Perhaps he succeeded in his promise for change and a "new beginning." He has revised long-standing diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Just not in the manner so very many had dreamed of.
n Tanya Cariina Hsu is a British political analyst specializing in US-Saudi foreign policy. This article is exclusive to Arab News.