John Kerry's trip to Egypt came after the US president won a second term, which followed a first term of hesitation and confusion in dealing with the Egyptian revolution and its outcome. On events since 25 January 2011, Obama adopted policies that were strongly criticised by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
There are also rising calls to suspend US aid (military and economic) to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while Egypt suffers a wave of disputes and political turmoil between the Brotherhood and opposition forces on issues of managing the transitional phase. Egypt is also afflicted with lax security since the revolution until today, an economic crisis and stalled negotiations with the IMF.
These are all variables that affect Egypt’s foreign policies and standing, as well as its role in regional affairs. Washington needs this role to deal with Middle East crises, starting with Arab Gulf security which has strategic significance for US interests, the Syrian and Iranian crises, and finally Egypt’s role in the peace process and reconciliation between Palestinian factions (Fatah and Hamas). Also, maintaining Israel’s security and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which are all US interests that in the final analysis are linked to building a democratic Egypt.
Kerry’s visit to Egypt and meetings with the presidency, minister of defence, businessmen, human and civil rights groups and key figures in the opposition, reveals two US outlooks on dealing with developments in Egypt. The first perspective, advocated by some right-wing research institutions, think tanks and several US congressmen, rejects the US administration’s handling of developments in Egypt because they view it as support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist political Islamist current — in their view — that refuses to recognise Israel. They argue the group also opposes the rights of Copts, women and freedom of belief.
Advocates of this argument are divided between hardliners who call for an end to all forms of US aid to Egypt, under the pretext the US has no interest in supporting a regime that rejects the values and principles on which the US was built. They add that the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt adopts policies that obstruct US national security and interests in the Middle East, pointing to warmer relations between Egypt and Iran.
Meanwhile, moderates in this camp believe US aid to Egypt should be linked to a series of conditions that Cairo must meet and implement before receiving assistance.
The second camp is more realistic and pragmatic in dealing with the current situation. It argues the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), in parliamentary and presidential elections, was based on democratic elections, and that political and economic problems in the transitional phase are normal for revolutions and democratic change. This requires the US to assist the Egyptian regime in managing the transitional phase and play a key role in building democratic and legal institutions to serve intersecting US-Egyptian interests.
Kerry is one such advocate, as demonstrated by his positions inside Congress. While chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he said on 20 March 2011 the US is not worried about the Muslim Brotherhood reaching power through a democratic election process. Kerry also announced the US will provide $250 million in aid to Egypt divided into two categories. First, $190 million for the Egyptian budget to remedy what he described as rising demands of the country (this portion was in fact approved by Congress). The second, at $60 million, would create a fund to support small-size projects, which directly funds key elements of democratic change in Egypt, including business owners and young Egyptians.
On the Egyptian front, the visit revealed two perspectives on the US role in revolutionary Egypt. The first views Washington as the reason why the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency as part of a deal through which the US accomplished several gains, including keeping Muslim Brotherhood Egypt committed to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty; benefiting from the Muslim Brotherhood’s close ties with Hamas (which has Brotherhood roots) to achieve Israel’s security; benefiting from the doctrinal dispute and conflicting interests between the moderate Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and anti-US Shia forces in the region, most notably Iran and Hizbullah. Thus, Muslim Brotherhood Egypt would stand up to their growing influence and policies hostile to the US, its interests and security in the region.
This is why several opposition forces in Egypt, most prominently the National Salvation Front (NSF), refused to meet with Kerry saying the US’s goal from the visit was to pressure opposition forces to participate in parliamentary elections slated for April to consolidate Muslim Brotherhood rule.
Also, the US is sacrificing its banners of democracy and human rights for the sake of its own interests in the region, which the Brotherhood regime has so far protected. Also, current US policies in Egypt are similar to those during Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.
The second current in Egypt does not believe the US is championing one side over the other, but is open to influential political forces in Egypt across the spectrum. Also, that the US’s main goal is to protect its interests in the region and that it deals with the Egyptian regime on this basis.
In the final analysis, Kerry’s visit to Cairo reveals a wise principle of US foreign policy, namely pragmatism. It deals with reality and does not seek to create a new reality, with the aim of taking advantage of the variables in place to achieve its interests, irrespective of human rights and democracy standards in these countries. Washington is continuing the same policies it adopted during Hosni Mubarak’s regime 30 years ago, relying on the regime irrespective of human rights violations and an incomplete democratic structure.
It has not yet learned the lesson that fundamental power is not in the hands of rulers but the street. Developments on the ground since the revolution until today reveal the Muslim Brotherhood is not the domineering power in control, and that it cannot rule alone or achieve stability and security. The Brotherhood’s governance policies, violence and human rights abuses are an embarrassment to the Obama administration before US and international public opinion.
The writer is associate editor at Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya magazine