Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
The life-size cutout of Hillary Clinton looked lonely. On November 8, at the U.S. Embassy’s presidential election night bash in Cairo, dozens of young Egyptians gathered in a cavernous hotel ballroom to pose with a cardboard effigy of Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump. Despite the New York mogul’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, Trump is popular here, at least among government supporters. So when the Apprentice star swept the American heartland for a shocking victory, many in the Egyptian capital cheered the result.
Among them: President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump. His budding bromance with the Donald stands in contrast to his relationship with outgoing President Barack Obama, whom he’s viewed with distrust since Washington briefly suspended military aid following the 2013 coup that brought el-Sissi to power. Egyptian authorities have since moved closer to Russia, holding large joint military drills and perhaps securing funds from Vladimir Putin for the country’s first nuclear power plant.
Many expect el-Sissi and Trump to bond over their mutual antipathy toward “radical Islam”—and a shared preference for strongman politics. But Egyptian-American affairs have long been characterized by wild swings, from extended periods of cooperation to swift ruptures. And with Trump’s inexperience and el-Sissi’s intolerance of unsolicited advice or criticism, few expect the relationship between Washington and Cairo to remain copacetic. “As dictators embrace, their peoples get upset,” says Robert Springborg, a professor of war studies at King’s College London and longtime analyst of the Middle East. “ Egypt is already quite unstable, so the reaction among some Egyptians to el-Sissi’s courting of Trump will add to [the] discontent…”
The relationship between Egypt and the United States began in earnest soon after the end of the American Civil War, when a young soldier and adventurer named Thaddeus Mott wrangled an introduction to the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Ismail. The monarch in Cairo was eager to build up his armed forces, so he could thwart Europe’s colonial ambitions and kick out the Ottomans, who had controlled Egypt for over 300 years. Mott, the son of a world-renowned surgeon, sensed a moneymaking opportunity. In 1869, he convinced Ismail to hire dozens of Civil War veterans as military advisers. “Ismail wanted to upgrade the army; to upgrade his country,” says Mahmoud Sabit, a Cairo-based historian and descendant of Ismail’s then-minister of war. “And what better way than to turn to anti-imperial troops that had just emerged from the most modern war?”
The first batch of what would ultimately be a force of around 50 American officers sailed across the Atlantic, a motley bunch whose motivations ranged as wildly as their temperaments. The mostly ex-Confederates overseen by Union veterans were unhappy with postwar reconstruction. After their defeat, for instance, many of the Southerners were barred from serving in the U.S. Army. But by blocking the European powers and saving Egypt from Ottoman control, some felt they’d be restoring a lost sense of pride. The Northerners were also driven overseas by postwar frustrations. Many had struggled to adjust to civilian life.
To Ismail, the Egyptian ruler, all that mattered was the Americans’ military know-how and technical skills (building pontoon bridges, digging wells and laying railroads). In the beginning, the Americans proved worthy of their handsome salaries and fancy titles. General William “Old Blizzards” Loring, a career soldier who’d lost an arm in the Mexican-American War, was entrusted with revamping northern Egypt’s coastal defenses. He did such a comprehensive job that his fortifications outside Alexandria held firm through several later bombardments by the British.
But Ismail’s grand state-building plan came at a steep cost, and as he ran into financial troubles, tensions and culture differences emerged. James Morris Morgan, a soldier who had escorted Jefferson Davis’s wife out of Richmond as it burned near the end of the Civil War, was expelled from Egypt for making what was deemed an inappropriate approach to Ismail’s daughter. The end finally came when the Egyptian ruler launched an ill-conceived assault into Ethiopia, to extract resources and exact revenge for a humiliating defeat the previous year. But this expedition failed, due to poor leadership and infighting among the officer corps. The Egyptians blamed Old Blizzards, who had been appointed as joint second-in-command, and the rest of the U.S. soldiers were marred by association.
Yet the Civil War vets left an impressive mark on Egypt, from scouting out a location for a key lighthouse at the mouth of the Red Sea to identifying Aswan as the best spot on the Nile for a future dam. But with the British invasion of Egypt in 1882, much of the progress they made was hastily undone. The new overlords shrank the country’s army and dispersed Egyptian officers with their newly acquired technical skills. For the next 70 years, the country lived under the kind of foreign domination that the Confederates and their Union counterparts had sworn to resist.
In the 1950s, in the early days of the Cold War, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower courted Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser in hopes of checking the spread of socialism. But America’s refusal to pay for Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, among other things, led Nasser to embrace the Soviets instead. That alliance lasted for two decades, until the late 1970s, when the U.S. brokered the Camp David Accords, sealing a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The agreement led to many U.S. Army instructors returning, and since the late 1940s, Washington has provided almost $80 billion in military aid to Egypt. For much of this period, Egyptian officers have also been admitted to U.S army war colleges to learn many of the skills Loring and his cohorts had tried to impart long ago.
For decades, the two countries remained bound together by their shared regional interests, from peace in the Sinai to the free passage of oil through the Suez Canal, and the U.S. government’s belief that ignoring Cairo’s unsavory human rights record was worth maintaining order in the most populous country in the Arab world. But when Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency began to unravel in the early days of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration backed the revolutionaries and called for Egypt’s elderly dictator to step down. Since 2011, Egypt has bounded from military control to an Islamist president and now back to a former field marshal, with each ruler warily eyeing his erstwhile partner across the Atlantic.
Now as Trump prepares to work with el-Sissi (“He’s a fantastic guy,” Trump said when they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in September), he and his advisers would do well to remember how quickly Cairo turned on the ex-Confederate soldiers. Nearly 150 years later, Loring’s experience is a cautionary reminder. As Springborg puts it, “People’s historical memories are short.”