For all of the attention that it generated in Washington, the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue came and went without much fanfare in Egypt. Local newspapers ran sensationalist headlines reporting that Secretary of State John Kerry had evidence of Muslim Brotherhood violence—Kerry claimed no such thing—while the deputy editor of a semi-official publication castigated American reporters for asking the Egyptian foreign minister “violent” questions. In the eyes of many Egyptians, the Obama administration sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, when the military responded to mass protests by toppling President Mohamed Morsi, so Kerry’s efforts are viewed as too little, too late.
Yet despite the dialogue’s failure to change popular Egyptian perceptions of U.S. policy, Kerry laid the groundwork for reinvigorating the strategic aspect of the bilateral relationship when he acknowledged Washington’s readiness to restart Bright Star. This bi-annual military exercise took place more or less consistently since 1980, but it was cancelled in 2011 following the “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Until that time, however, it was the centerpiece of the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, and its resumption in 2016 should be a no-brainer for three reasons.
First, it would demonstrate Washington’s ongoing commitment to the security of its longtime Sunni-Arab allies, which is particularly crucial following the nuclear agreement with Iran. Lieutenant General Michael DeLong, a former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said that Bright Star “built a tremendous amount of goodwill among the twenty-five countries in our AOR,” or area of responsibility. As the Obama administration searches for ways to maintain deterrence in the Persian Gulf, Bright Star is a high-reward, low-risk option. In the past, the United States and Egypt invited a number of partner nations to observe and join in the exercise. There is little doubt that the Saudis and Emiratis would participate this time around, especially if it was tailored to addressing regional challenges—whether from Iran, the Islamic State, or the Houthis in Yemen.
Second, Bright Star would demonstrate the durability of the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship despite the political disagreements since Morsi’s ouster. The relationship reached a low point in October 2013, when the Obama administration withheld much of the $1.3 billion in military aid to protest the government’s deadly crackdown. But in recent months, the Obama administration and Congress have worked to get the relationship back on track by unfreezing the aid in March, delivering military hardware, and holding high-level talks. Scheduling Bright Star is the logical next step for translating the renewed partnership into direct cooperation.
Third, Bright Star could give the U.S. more leverage in its efforts to improve the Egyptian counterterrorism strategy in the Sinai Peninsula. Indeed, the current campaign against Sinai-based jihadists, which began in September 2013, is going poorly. According to reports, the military’s maladroit tactics, including the razing of over 1,000 homes in Rafah, have alienated the local population, while the insurgents, some of whom affiliate with the Islamic State, have launched increasingly deadly attacks in the Sinai and beyond. Washington has cautioned Cairo repeatedly about its approach to combating terrorism and offered to training Egyptian forces, but to no avail. Through Bright Star, however, U.S. military officials could work closely with their Egyptian counterparts and share practical insights based on years of combat experience. The U.S. would thus act as a partner in assisting Egypt to uproot terrorism, rather than appearing as a sideline critic.
To be sure, the resumption of Bright Star will be somewhat controversial within the Washington foreign policy community, which is virtually unanimous in its condemnation of Egypt’s repressive trajectory under current president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Many analysts fear that the Sisi regime’s ongoing, and often brutal, crackdown on practically all opposition activity ensures future instability, and they worry that the United States will once again find itself betting on the wrong horse, as it did with Mubarak and Morsi. But as Kerry demonstrated, Washington can press Cairo on human rights while simultaneously reinforcing an important strategic partnership. More to the point, while it is hard to predict the longevity of the current regime, Bright Star will strengthen Washington’s relationship with the one Egyptian institution that will remain central either way: the military.
Bright Star is certainly not a cure-all, nor should one expect bilateral bliss in the years to come even if it takes place. But by fostering direct military-to-military cooperation, Bright Star represents an important step for reinvigorating the strategic relationship and pursuing the interests that unite Washington and Cairo, as opposed to lingering over the issues that divide them.