Conflicting visions: How the US sees its options on Egypt

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 20 Feb 2014

There is a general awareness in the US of the widespread desire in Egypt for El-Sisi to run for president, yet hopes are pinned on achieving tangible political transformation that includes the Islamist camp

President Barack Obama speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the White House on 23 August 2012. (Photo: AP)

US policy towards Egypt is increasingly characterised by confusion and inconsistencies on the part of both the administration and Congress. In large measure this is due to a huge information gap about what is really taking place in Egypt. American “think tanks” that support the information supply process have turned their attention away from Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, with the sole exception of Syria. Increasingly it is the Far East that dominates their attention.

There are differences of opinion in both the White House and on Capitol Hill regarding the likely candidacy of Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. In response to questions on this matter, US officials generally agree that the forthcoming president has to be decided by the Egyptian people. What is important is that Egypt moves towards stability and it is the political stakeholders in Egypt, and no one else, who must formulate the working agenda towards this end.

There is a general awareness in the US of the widespread desire in Egypt for El-Sisi to run for president and while it is difficult to foresee Egypt’s future under the general, many in Washington agree that the stability he could bring will be good for Egypt following the drastic failure of the Islamist experience in power. At the same time, however, hopes are pinned on achieving tangible political transformation.

Al-Ahram Ahram spoke with many people in the US administration, Congress and research centres. They all admit to having difficulties in grasping current developments in Egypt and many are suspicious of advice or assessments coming from any party in Egypt in light of the highly-charged political climate. They also tend to believe that it is wisest for Washington to take a calm and distant stand from events in Cairo and to avoid showing bias to any party in the Egyptian political arena. At the same time, many hold that it is important to patch up relations with the Egyptian army, a cornerstone of US-Egyptian relations.

Congress appears to have the clearest agenda with regard to Egypt and, undoubtedly, the Israeli lobby has had a major say in shaping this. Israel’s security is extremely important and must be given priority above all other considerations, say Congressional sources. While observing a session of the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee, I listened to several experts offer views and detailed information on the subject. One concluded that Hamas was less restricted in its access to weapons under Mubarak. The influx of arms into Gaza did increase during the Morsi era but this was largely a result of the general chaos prevailing in Egypt’s neighbours and a security breakdown which facilitated the illicit flow of arms. In short, he said, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood should not be put in the same basket. The former is a terrorist organisation, the latter not.

These experts also recognise former president Morsi as the only mediator who succeeded in getting Israel and Hamas to put their signatures to a document, the truce agreement of November 2012. Even so, the agreement did not safeguard Israeli security from “real dangers” so, in sum, Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt was a cause for concern in Israel.

But in spite of the overwhelming priority that US decision-makers give to Israel there is an awareness that, as one person I interviewed put it, “The US cannot turn a blind eye to those forces that moved to overthrow Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime which had failed to realise the aspirations of the people following the fall of the Mubarak regime.”

But how does this translate into practice? Are there still forces, in the State Department in particular, keen on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, as many in Egypt suspect? Conversely, how far would Washington go to support the Egyptian army, especially now there is no longer pressure in Congress to introduce sanctions against Egypt or freeze military aid?

As I awaited answers to such questions I was aware that Muslim Brotherhood leaders — some arriving from Qatar via London and others already present in the US — were holding a conference in Georgetown, only a hop, skip and a jump away from Capitol Hill. My interlocutors did not seem particularly interested in all the noise the Muslim Brotherhood was making. In their opinion Congress, in coordination with the State Department, should work to rehabilitate the relationship with Egypt’s military establishment. It is the institution in which the US has had the greatest confidence for more than three and a half decades and it is also the institution that is of major importance in the process of achieving a balance between the many things that need to be addressed in order to restore stability in Egypt.

“I cannot speak in the name of the government,” said one Congressional source. “However, I feel certain that no one there, in the State Department, wants to support the Muslim Brotherhood now.”

With regard to US aid to Egypt he explained: “There is a law that prohibits the government from extending military aid to a state in which there has been a coup d’etat. This was how they referred to what happened in Egypt, at least at the outset. However, it is important to bear in mind that opinions are changing on that matter. It is just a question of time.”

This same Congressional source made an even more significant admission. “It was a big mistake to support NGOs in Egypt. Most of them turned out to be sledgehammers. It is important to take stability into account. It is more important than other things. We were wrong to encourage people who weren’t good, because the result was not good, as we are discovering now.”

In the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of the most important think tanks in the US, I met with one of the most prominent US experts on Egypt. Among his credentials is the fact that he has held a total of 30 meetings with all three pre-January 2011 presidents of Egypt: Abdel-Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. In his opinion, Egypt is in an extremely delicate period of change and it is impossible to make predictions because the change is happening so rapidly.

“I was in Egypt at the time of the Cairo fires in the early 1950s. I saw it and it was horrifying. At least 300 buildings were burned down in the heart of the capital... The Muslim Brothers were probably behind it. The army intervened and took power. The king was subsequently sent off from Alexandria. Abdel-Nasser was not the president. Another person served as the facade – General Mohamed Naguib ... The conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood would erupt later. I fear that we are watching a reproduction of the 1954 scenario. Perhaps people in Egypt have forgotten that. But such background should not be ignored when looking for solutions.”

With respect to current US opinion on the situation in Egypt, he acknowledged a host of divisions. “There are political groups that believe that it would be best if the Muslim Brotherhood is included as a party in any forthcoming government coalition. They hold that the Brotherhood should be included in the calculations of political circles and, hence, should not be eliminated from the political process. Others, however, are of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood is bent on propelling Egypt towards an Algerian [civil war] scenario and, therefore, they need to be confronted. I, personally, believe that there has been hostility on the part of the Islamists toward the US. This was demonstrated while they were in power, as we saw when the US embassy in Cairo was besieged at the outset of the Muslim Brotherhood's rule in the context of a film that was offensive to Islam, and it was demonstrated after they were overthrown. They act as though the US is responsible for everything, which is not true.”

The veteran CSIS scholar acknowledged that Israel was a key factor in US foreign policy decisions on the Middle East and Egypt. He also believes it necessary to safeguard the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Interestingly, however, he states: “Although we have engaged in many wars because of Israel — and this was certainly a great mistake — it is impossible to move away from such policies. A member of congress tried suggesting this a couple of weeks ago and the result was that he had to resign. In the forthcoming days, AIPAC is going to meet and there will be Congressional members on hand. I expect something new to emerge.”

Although Israel is benefitting from the operations that the Egyptian army is currently undertaking in Sinai, there is certain to come a day when Tel Aviv will begin to ask how long the army plans to keep its arms there.

“Contrary to the common impression, Israel does not support the Egyptian army. In fact it is worried by the Egyptian army and it may have had a hand behind the scenes in the Congressional decision to freeze military aid to Egypt. Nevertheless, it is ultimately in Israel’s interests for the army to be engaged in Sinai in the fight against extremist forces and, therefore, Israel is keen to strike a balance between those operations and the armament question.”

Acknowledging a lack of information to be able to assess what is actually taking place on the ground in the Sinai, the CSIS expert says there is sufficient confirmation that “Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are operating in the field." However, he points out that “US strategic study centres and the administration have no evidence of the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood is related to this matter.” He added that opinion in these circles was divided. Some hold that Muslim Brotherhood members have joined ranks with Al-Qaeda in order to exact revenge on the army and police. Others believe that Al-Qaeda affiliates are merely taking advantage of the current circumstances in Egypt in the service of Al-Qaeda and yet a third body of opinion argues that these groups work on behalf of whoever pays the most.

While the attention of the US administration and Congress has begun to shift away from Egypt, there remains considerable anxiety with regard to the future. Hopes are pinned on the restoration of stability and the belief is that the Egyptian army is best poised for this task, especially in view of the aspirations of the Egyptian people and their confidence in their armed forces

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly newspaper.

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