In the wake of Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and the establishment of a new provisional government, many forces within Egypt are struggling to understand the role of the United States in Egypt’s internal politics. US Assistant Secretary of State Nicholas Burns’ recent visit to Cairo, the first such trip by any US foreign official since the recent upheaval, has only reinforced Egyptian perception of the United States as a key player in Egypt’s domestic power struggles. History, however, tells a different story. The United States, both in the past and present, has pursued its own broader strategic goals in Egypt while avoiding an active role in Egypt’s internal affairs.
The Obama administration’s seemingly indecisive response to the events surrounding Morsi’s removal from power continues well-established American policy towards Egypt. For more than three decades, the United States claimed to support the Egyptian people’s pursuit of freedom and democracy while simultaneously propping up Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime. Such an apparent contradiction perfectly summarises Washington’s relationship with Cairo: despite historical evidence that following principles is a better long-term strategy, America has consistently pursued its short-term goal of stability in Egypt at all costs in order to protect US interests in the region.
The American response to the January 2011 revolution reflects this approach. The US avoided statements expressing full support for the demands of the Egyptian people to remove Mubarak precisely because Washington wanted to see which side would emerge victorious before choosing sides. Accordingly, the US pressured Mubarak on every issue except his removal from power. When Mubarak responded to protests by appointing General Omar Suleiman as his vice president, for example, the US openly supported the appointment and immediately began talks with Suleiman to ensure an “orderly transition of power." The US emphasised an “orderly transition” as opposed to a more significant political overhaul precisely because a smooth transition would do the least damage to America’s interests in the region.
The same basic strategy is being employed today. Obama has been reluctant to classify Morsi’s overthrow as a military coup. The reasoning behind this unwillingness is simple: if the US categorises the event as a military coup, the US would be obliged to terminate its $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which is military aid.
Such a drastic shakeup of the current relationship between the two countries, especially at a time when the Egyptian military appears to be growing in importance, could do great harm to Washington’s goals in the Middle East.
One might naturally wonder what exactly US interests in the region are. America’s historical interests in the Middle East can be most simply summed up in two words: oil and Israel. Efforts to ensure Israeli security have had far-reaching effects on the regional balance of power, the war on terror, and the failed peace process in the Middle East.
As for the pursuit of oil, it too has created global rivalries, alliances, and enemies for the United States. Basic US oil strategy involves the protection of vital maritime shipping lanes and the support of regimes, whether democratic or authoritarian, that facilitate American access to oil.
Egypt plays a key role in US strategy concerning both issues due to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and the Suez Canal. These interests form the starting point for Cairo and Washington’s “special relationship” based around one idea: American aid to Egypt in exchange for Egyptian cooperation. The United States provides the aid regardless of the nature of the ruling Egyptian regime, and so the aid maintains a stable regional partner that unwaveringly supports US interests.
Now, however, political forces in Egypt appear to be questioning the motives behind Washington’s indecision. On the one hand, supporters of Morsi’s overthrow suspect the US because of its reluctance to describe the events as a popular revolution. Most of these supporters believe the military was left with no alternative but to stand with the millions who marched in the streets demanding the end of the Morsi regime. The administration’s description of the situation as “exceptionally complicated and difficult” has created suspicion in their minds that the US is secretly backing Morsi and the Brotherhood. The White House’s recognition of the opposition’s “legitimate complaints” against Morsi wasn’t enough to resolve these doubts.
On the other hand, Islamists blame the Obama administration for supporting a military coup; they see the administration’s refusal to name it as such as a signal of tacit support and endorsement for the military overthrow. To many supporters of the Brotherhood, the American refusal to call the uprising a coup is evidence of American involvement in the outcome.
These two opposing sides, polar opposites in so many ways, are united in their concern about “American influence” and its crucial role in Egypt’s political struggles. In this way, America has become a key player in Egyptian politics not because of its actual influence, but because of the universal Egyptian belief in an influential America interfering in Egypt’s domestic affairs.
This conclusion points to two surprising trends. The first is that Egyptians lack an understanding of what factors drive America’s interest in Egypt, and thus America’s policy towards Egypt. The second is that the Egyptian people are not yet exerting their own full influence over Egypt’s domestic affairs because they believe in an all-powerful America whose wishes are more important to the outcome than those of the Egyptian people themselves. This is why political forces in Egypt compete for America’s favour while publicly denouncing America at the same time — they believe they have no practical choice but to collude with the great manipulating power. Moreover, for any group to change its public statements to reflect America’s lack of true influence would be disadvantageous because of how easy it is to blame American meddling and influence for Egypt’s problems. Foreign scapegoats are a tool historically proven to be effective at garnering mass support, and in the Middle East, no foreign scapegoat is more effective than the United States.
Washington’s pragmatic approach towards its own interests in the region forces the US to maintain a strong relationship with whatever regime rules Egypt. This need explains why Mubarak, Morsi, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were all fundamentally treated the same by US policy. This long-standing strategy will almost certainly continue, and so the US will continue working with whatever new government comes to power in Egypt, whether it is military, leftist, centrist, Islamist, or even Salafi. It is up to Egyptians to realise that the United States does not dictate the outcome of Egypt’s political battles and assert their own influence over Egyptian politics.
The writer is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He writes a weekly article in the Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk. He can be followed on Twitter @ElmenshawyM.