The Washington Post

Another reason why the U.S. hasn’t condemned Egypt’s coup: one high-level personal relationship

Egyptian Defense Minister al-Sissi, who announced on Wednesday that the president had been removed. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration and key congressional leaders, to the chagrin of some Egyptians and Americans, have gone out of their way to avoid calling the Egyptian military's July 2 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi a "coup." Presumably, that's in large part because calling it a coup could, under a U.S. law, compel the United States to cut its billion-plus dollars in annual foreign aid to Egypt. And it likely also has to do with the administration's increasing impatience with Morsi's mistakes and its desire to maintain leverage with the Egyptian military, one of the most powerful institutions in one of the most important countries in the Middle East.

But there may be another, much more pedestrian but still significant factor here: a personal relationship between one Egyptian official and one American, forged over a single lunch.

The Egyptian defense minister who officially announced on state TV that the military had removed Morsi, a general named Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, also turns out to be friendly with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to a revealing story by The Wall Street Journal. They're not old fishing buddies, exactly, but they had lunch two months ago, the foundation of a personal relationship that was, according to a senior administration official who spoke to the Journal, "basically the only viable channel of communication during the crisis."

For the Obama administration, then, alienating Sissi would have left the United States without a "viable channel of communication" with one of its most important allies in the Middle East. That raises the potential costs of condemning the coup significantly, and may help explain why the United States is eager to preserve the relationship.

It's a reminder that, for all the complexity and gravity of international relations, sometimes big issues that potentially affect millions of people can be decided in small moments. And sometimes those moments are determined as much by the sorts of regular-person relationships that you or I might deploy within our offices as they are guided by vast forces of international politics. And it makes you wonder how things might have gone had the lunch never happened.

There are limits to this relationship's power to guide events, of course. The Journal story says that Hagel warned Sissi against the coup, which clearly went ahead anyway. Based on the story, though, the Obama administration seems to have used the Hagel-Sissi phone calls to guide Egypt's post-coup transition by urging the general to appoint civilian interim leaders (although they made a point of not naming specific civilians) and to ease back the military's crackdown on Morsi officials and Muslim Brotherhood members.

Ironically, between calls advising Sissi on how to select his interim government, Hagel also complained that the Egyptian military was tolerating widespread conspiracy theories that the Morsi government had been a U.S. puppet, the Journal article said.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Be a man and cry
Program turns prisoners into poets
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
Play Videos
The signature dish of Charleston, S.C.
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
The most interesting woman you've never heard of
Play Videos
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
The art of tortilla-making
A man committed to journalism, caught in the crossfire
Play Videos
Tips for (relatively) stress-free dining out with kids
How to get organized for back to school
How the new credit card chip makes purchases more secure
Next Story
Max Fisher · July 10, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.