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.