In his final days before he left the US State Department as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs in November 1999, Martin Indyk told Arab journalists that human rights concerns were usually on the agenda in meetings with senior Egyptian officials, but that often there were so many other higher priority items on the agenda that discussions would end before the agenda was fully covered. A similar view was expressed 14 years later by an equally senior State Department official in interview with the current writer in Washington.
Having said that, there seems to be a perceptible, though small, change from the knee jerk low priority reaction the administration had towards human rights and democratisation issues for many years.
“The US is still experimenting here with issues it needs to speak up about. Would we talk about niche issues like sexual assaults on women? How strategic are these issues after all? If Egypt passes a stifling NGO law, I think it would be a big problem, but people who believe so are still a minority within the US government because they do not think through all the consequences and what Egypt would be 10 years from now if they have a hollowed out democracy without free media, freedom of the judiciary,” said the former senior official in her office in an influential think tank in Washington DC.
This perceptible change became more concrete in 2011 with the Arab Spring in its early days, but with its twists and turns, the human rights and democratisation arguments have a harder job now in Washington and European capitals.
Neither hard sticks nor enough carrots
Speaking up is one thing. Exercising actual pressure is another. There is no evidence that the US has used available tools for pressure on Egypt to promote more democratisation or respect for human rights before and after the downfall of Mubarak.
“There are no sticks and not too many carrots … the funding, the implementers and the agencies that implement the policy have not really changed [since the end of the Bush democratisation drive]. US agencies try to act in terms of human rights, election monitoring and training and to seize opportunities, but the Arab Spring coincided with the worst time economically in Washington DC. There is no money,” a congressional staffer told me.
All strategic interests and values aside, there remains the belief that the political culture in Egypt is difficult to change from inside and impossible from outside. “You cannot transform Egypt, but you can work with what you have. The army is the strongest institution and the lasting power, as the revolution proved. Hopefully one day, one day, Egypt would not be like this,” said the staffer.
Return of the neo-Orientalists
There is a whole body of work that attributes the lack of democracy in the region to cultural aspects, especially Islam. Mitchel (2011) would turn this argument upside down and claim that the US indeed preferred to deal with conservative Islamists and strengthened them over decades, turning a blind eye to the lack of democracy and massive human rights abuses, as long as those regimes stayed within the proscribed role of domestic social control and undermining leftists and anti-capitalist forces.
In other words, the US policy makers reinforced anti-democratic conservative regimes or supported merely cosmetic changes, as happened in Saudi Arabia over the past few years in terms of education and the installment of a toothless parliament. It was not that the US feared electoral democracy because it would bring Islamists who espouse different values; rather the US did not want a specific strain of Islamists who, like nationalists and leftists before them, would challenge US interests or demand a more equitable relationship.
Chaos knocks on the door
Many interagency meetings were held in Washington DC in late January and early February 2011 to discuss whether — and then when and how — Mubarak should go. Barack Obama, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton were more traditional and cautious. Clinton repeatedly warned on moving “too fast and making it look like the US was abandoning its allies." She was also the one warning that the choice was not between reform and stability, but between reform and chaos. Now chaos was knocking at the door and it was important to manage it properly.
US foreign policy on Egypt in 2011 and before was captive to a delicate dance performed by three partners: US strategic interests guarded or facilitated by Egypt; the Egyptian people's desire for democracy and better governance resonating with US values; and, to a lesser extent, the belief held by several academics, politicians and bureaucrats that the Arab culture of Egypt was not compatible with democracy.
It was this dance that US foreign policymakers engaged in for about a week between 25 January and 1 February 2011, until they reached a position calling on Mubarak to have an “orderly transition … [that] must begin now,” or in less diplomatic words, withdrawing US support for the Egyptian autocrat.
But this dance never ended as they slowly gravitated towards another partner, the Muslim Brotherhood a year later, fully convinced that the military should not rule the country, though they should maintain their influential position. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood are pushed off the stage, the US seems to be angling again for its conventional ally in the military institution as long as it has a credible plan of transition to civilian rule.
The Spring that swept Gaddafi away
Tunisia and Egypt were the easy revolutions (18 days in Egypt and three weeks in Tunisia, with only hundreds of casualties in both countries). What strong Islamic organisation or the armed terrorists of Al-Qaeda failed to do in decades, the youth had done in a few weeks, and largely peacefully. Colonel Gaddafi, a megalomaniac known for his antics (a music video against Condoleezza Rice, buxom female guards, strange designer attires, unpredictable tirades, and long and incomprehensible speeches), made Ben Ali and Mubarak look like ultra modern rulers. Gaddafi’s ruthless politics, which started by gutting all institutions and the murder of opposition figures ended with increasing poverty in a country that saw billions of dollars in oil revenues every year.
Protest erupted in mid-February 2011, a few days after Mubarak fell in Egypt, over the arrest of a lawyer in Benghazi and quickly mushroomed into demonstrations where thousands participated. Benghazi had always nursed regional disdain of the control emanating from Tripoli. In late 2003. Gaddafi gave up his dreams of building a weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) arsenal (maybe after what he saw happening to Saddam Hussein earlier the same year) and the West reintegrated Libya with gusto to gain oil and reconstruction contracts. The US reopened its embassy in Libya in 2008 after removing Libya from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. With the WMDs out of the way, there was no longer a clear strategic interest (or a threat) for the US in Libya, but there was for the Europeans, and hence indirectly for the Americans. Gaddafi’s security forces worked to stem illegal immigration from African countries to Europe while European companies invested billions of dollars in rehabilitating the decaying Libyan oil and gas industry.
Libya accounts for two percent of world oil production, but Europe took 85 percent of this production and countries like Italy and France depend on Libya for providing as high as 22 percent and 16 percent of their energy needs respectively. In other words, there were no clear positive national interests for the US to defend in Libya, or to support regime change there, but there were clear interests for major allies in Europe, including possible negative impacts on European economies that could consequently affect the US.
As more alarming reports from Libya about impending massacres in Benghazi came to Washington with the Libyan army advancing towards the rebel-held city, the Europeans pushed for a military intervention while the US administration was divided. Secretary Gates opposed the war and even spoke publicly of how the suggested no-fly zone would be a “big operation in a big country.” Ultimately, Gates did not see US national interest there. By mid-March the Gaddafi militias approached Benghazi, at which time even a no-fly zone would not have been sufficient to stop the looming bloodletting. Obama wanted Arab countries to participate because he did not want another American war against an Arab country, but Samantha Power, Susan Rice and Clinton wanted an intervention (largely but not exclusively on the basis of values and the assumed responsibility to protect civilians facing a possible genocide). When Obama decided to intervene against Gaddafi he cited Arab League calls for action, British and French calls for NATO action, and then his concern that by not intervening US credibility and leadership could be undermined and there would be consequences for the Arab Spring and for the international community.
The Pentagon accepted grudgingly, as long as the intervention was a time bound mission. The Pentagon opposition was rooted in concerns about being overstretched into a third war (with troops tied up still in Afghanistan and Iraq) while it did not really have the money for additional action.
With support from European allies, acquiescence from Russia and China in the UN Security Council, symbolic support from the Arabs with some Qatari and UAE planes joining in action after pressure from the US, and an agreement that the US would lead for a few weeks and then command would move over to NATO, the US administration tied all loose ends and decided to go to war with its allies, primarily due to strategic and economic concerns on their part, but also acting on principle. Obama was worried about not preventing a preventable massacre, but also the operations seemed clean and fast. The regime was crumbling with no social base of support, unlike the evolving situation in Syria.
The author is an Egyptian writer who worked for over 20 years in the United States, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa both as a journalist and as a United Nations official. He now lives and works in Cairo.