While attending the hearing session of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, 21 June 2011, on the nomination of the new US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, Senator John Kerry described her as one of the best diplomats serving US interests overseas. Kerry said Patterson is worthy of her new sensitive post as US ambassador to Cairo.
Then Patterson talked about her priorities in her new post, most notably supporting democratic transition. She believed the majority of Egyptians will for the first time in their life witness free elections. Patterson added that during the transitional phase in Egypt, the US will hear many voices that do not serve its interests and the democratic process in Egypt will be very difficult because of the novelty and fragility of Egypt’s institutions of democracy.
The US ambassador’s predictions about the difficulties of democratic transition were correct, but she could never imagine that she herself would become a target for many in both Islamic and non-Islamic political forces. Islamists who fear the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi attack her and choose to blame Washington, while liberals attack Patterson instead of admitting their own political and electoral weaknesses and failures.
Since Ambassador Patterson presented her credentials to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi on 17 August 2011, the media made a connection between her previous post as ambassador in Pakistan and her assignment in Cairo. Many accused her of aiming to tame Islamist forces and spread mayhem in Egypt. There were many rumours in the Egyptian media, and which were not retracted, even when they were revealed as fabrications.
For example, in January some media outlets reported statements allegedly made by Patterson to Israel’s Maariv newspaper that Israel has rights to Egyptian land. It was a fabricated report since the ambassador never spoke to Maariv.
In February, Patterson spoke at a Rotary Club event where she commented about the call by some political parties to bring back military rule. She said: “A military intervention is not the answer, as some would claim. Neither the Egyptian military nor the Egyptian people will accept it as an outcome.” Several newspapers and news channels misquoted her and claimed she had said: “The US administration will not allow the Egyptian army to return to power.”
In a speech at Ibn Khaldun Centre last week, Ambassador Patterson said: “Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order, and more violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs. Instead, I recommend Egyptians get organised. Join or start a political party that reflects your values and aspirations. Egyptians need to know a better path forward. This will take time. You will have to roll up your sleeves and work hard. Progress will be slow and you often will feel frustrated. But there is no other way.”
As soon as she had finished her speech, a political media campaign launched against her. Her statements were interpreted as her rejection of the return of the army to power in Egypt, condemnation of the 30 June protests, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The headlines of some newspaper described Patterson as an “ambassador from Hell,” “the US High Commissioner in Egypt,” “insolent Patterson,” “Patterson the white beetle,” and dozens of other inappropriate headlines.
In general, an ambassador’s job includes representing their country, presenting its view on critical issues in the host country, as well as participating in decision making back home by giving their opinion, sending reports and making suggestions.
Since her arrival in Cairo, Ambassador Patterson’s perspective evolved based on four fundamental facts:
First, the victory of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist candidates in all elections and referendums in Egypt — such as the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, the presidential race, the referendum on the constitution — is evidence of their strong influence. Second, the Muslim Brotherhood is prepared to rule and manage the affairs of the state of Egypt. Third, the non-Islamist opposition is divided and lacks a consensus leadership and is disconnected from the street and Egyptian citizenry. Fourth, the people of Egypt are exhausted with the transitional phase and want stability.
Accordingly, Patterson and the US concluded that the political Islamist current will rule Egypt and Washington must rely on the Muslim Brotherhood in key regional issues. This was the case during the Gaza crisis and currently in the Syrian crisis, while Egypt’s domestic issues fall second place.
Meanwhile, the new Egyptian leadership adopted the same liberal economic policies as had Mubarak’s regime and even expanded QIZ agreements, which reassured the US.
The post of ambassador to Cairo is one of the most crucial in the US State Department, but it has its negative aspects, such as the amplification of the role and the lure of its importance, especially since Patterson deals with Egyptian groups from across the spectrum that are prone to exaggerating the scope, weight and influence of the US role.
Yes, the US ambassador was over zealous in connecting with the political Islamist current, which is very obvious in her unnecessary meetings with key Muslim Brotherhood figures, the group’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and his deputy Khairat Al-Shater. This raises questions about the significance and role of the US in Egypt’s current political dynamics.
While Washington is keen on maintaining a flexible relationship with Egypt’s rulers by not linking its strategic interests to a single figure or current — clear evidence of this is the stability of the US’s interests over the past two years despite the transfer of power from President Mubarak to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to President Morsi — the ruling and opposition elite in Egypt are both still under the illusion of US hegemony.
The greater threat facing democratic transition in Egypt is that these elite still believe everything that happened in Egypt is part of a larger strategy plotted in detail in Washington corridors, and not the outcome of dynamics and balances of power inside Egypt.
The writer is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. He can be followed on Twitter @ElmenshawyM.