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Egypt relations strained by Washington's mistakes

If nothing else, the Obama administration has succeeded in uniting Egyptians on one point: all factions feel slighted, misunderstood, or undermined by the United States

David Dumke , Monday 15 Jul 2013
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Washington’s mixed messages in the run-up to and aftermath of 30 June proved both unintelligible and irritating.  To the throngs of ideologically disparate Egyptians who took to the streets and to the armed forces, Americans issued dire warnings, if not rebukes.  And while the Brotherhood can take comfort in American support for the democratic process, they are keenly aware Washington failed to prevent Morsi’s ousting. 

The past few weeks speak volumes about how unhealthy the US-Egyptian bilateral relationship is today. Washington and Cairo see the world differently, have adopted divergent narratives to explain current events, are motivated by dissimilar political priorities, and fail to understand the symbolism of their acts and deeds. It is clear the relationship must adapt to new realities.

When the modern US-Egyptian relationship was conceived during the Sadat era, both sides understood what it wanted and expected from its partner. American policy focused exclusively on national security interests and regional stability, not Egyptian governance. For a quarter-century, these tenets formed a foundation upon which cordial relations were maintained. 

But in the post-September 11 world, both Republican and Democratic foreign policy mavens have deemed democracy promotion a foreign policy priority. This led to increasingly harsh criticism of the Mubarak regime. It also led Washington to alter – some would say overestimate – its calculations of leverage, and how it could be used to compel reform. Egypt, as an aid recipient, was viewed as susceptible to US pressure to alter its domestic behaviour. At the same time, however, both the Bush and Obama administrations also simultaneously worked to protect longstanding national security interests.

The policy of promoting societal openness abroad appeals to Americans. It is seen as innocuous and well intentioned. By supporting human rights and fundamental freedoms, Washington aimed to back “the people” over “the regime.” Moreover, policymakers insisted, democracy inevitably leads to greater stability, lessens the appeal of extremists and political extremism.

But when one nation works to change another’s political atmospherics, it risks being misunderstood or seen as hostile to incumbent governments or key political factions.  It becomes part of the story, particularly in a nation like Egypt with a penchant for conspiracy theories that cast American in a dark light.

Americans dismiss much criticism as the ramblings of crackpots or those struggling to preserve the status quo. They do not understand that many, if not most, Egyptians see Washington’s reform push as highly condescending or neo-imperialist. 

Critics of the American posture include many Egyptian democracy advocates.  More galling is the constant public discussion of Washington’s “leverage” – and how Egyptian decision-making is altered if not shaped by threats to withholding aid money. 

Many Egyptians do not accept that the January 25 revolution surprised Washington, which neither caused nor shaped the fall of Mubarak. The Obama administration issued an evolving series of statements shaped primarily by Western media coverage of events on the ground, which were well beyond its control. There was no grand American plan for a democratic transition, particularly one which empowered the Muslim Brotherhood.

Embattled ambassador Anne Patterson’s job included protecting traditional national security prerogatives, encouraging the peaceful transition to civilian rule, and forging relations with key political blocs, parties, and individuals. This led to a prolonged courtship of the Muslim Brotherhood, previously seen as an extremist entity. Patterson – who one assumes was carrying out Washington’s orders – went to great pains to woo the Brotherhood leadership. The logic for doing so was simple: the Brotherhood was the best-organised political player, and in elections, organisation wins every time.

The problem with the American courtship was that it ignored other political actors, underestimating their size, organisational skills, and ability to take collective action. It also concluded they had little electoral viability. By contrast, by engaging Khairat El-Shater and Mohamed Morsi, the US thought it might convince the illiberal Freedom and Justice Party to embrace democracy – even if not fully inclusive. At worst, the FJP – like the NDP before it – would protect other American interests, namely the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. 

In hindsight, the American focus on appeasing the Brotherhood alienated broader Egyptian society. Patterson’s infamous speech questioning the merits and wisdom of Rebel’s (Tamarod) recall campaign and planned demonstrations greatly offended Egyptians – for its patronising tone and failure to recognise the opposition’s strength and resolve.

For reasons unknown, the Obama administration was far more critical of Mubarak or SCAF than it was of Morsi. This despite Morsi’s questionable commitment to democracy, an inclusive Egypt, freedom of speech, and judicial independence. 

The NGO issue, long a concern of Washington, is notable.  One can argue about the appropriateness of allowing foreign governments to fund NGOs involved in the political process.  But this does not explain why Americans treated Morsi with kid gloves on this matter.  After all, Hosni Mubarak was pestered for years for not allowing these types of NGOs to legally register and work in Egypt.  SCAF was blamed for condoning police raids on NGO offices and arrests of their workers. Yet Morsi’s support for a draconian NGO law and unwillingness to intervene in the NGO court case – which resulted in convictions – was met with tepid rebukes. 

Collectively, the symbolism of American acts and deeds, particularly Patterson’s, led many Egyptian critics of Morsi to two conclusions. First, Washington cares little for democratic values or Egypt’s future. Second, in American eyes the Brotherhood simply replaced the NDP, which was acceptable no matter how they ruled so long as they served American interests. 

Washington is growing increasingly distant from Egyptian public opinion and has great difficulty reading the rapidly changing political barometer. Yet its hubris leads it to continually meddle and pontificate; it needs to learn that the best policy often is silence.  Regardless, if the bilateral relationship is to remain intact, Egypt and the US must both learn what they want and expect.  Only then will they determine if the stars still align.

 David Dumke is a veteran analyst on US relations with the Middle East and North Africa. 

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