Egyptian elites and Washington’s schizophrenia on Egypt

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Saturday 25 May 2013

The stream of political visits by Egyptians to Washington share the same flaw: an inability to understand the dynamics and goals of US foreign policy making on Egypt

In recent days and weeks many officials from Egypt’s Islamist and non-Islamist political parties have gone to Washington, as well as a large number of journalists and political activists for a variety of reasons, including attending conferences or to visit think tanks to give speeches.

Those visiting Washington for a few days return to Cairo struck by the amount of interest in Egyptian affairs, and begin talking about what they view as a different and new US position on what is happening in Egypt today. But the majority of analyses filling the Egyptian media have no objective understanding of the dynamics and balance of power between decision making centres in the US capital.

To begin with, these analyses assert with strong conviction that the US played a suspicious role in helping Mohamed Morsi reach power. Then these theories begin to promote the idea that there is a serious crisis between the US administration, on the one hand, and President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

More recently, some have even claimed there are messages from the US to the Egyptian army to intervene in the political process, to end domination of one faction in Egypt’s political life.

The reason for these misconstrued opinions is because visitors to Washington do not understand the dual nature of the city, which has been called “Washingtonian schizophrenia.”

There is no single Washington when it comes to the issue of Egypt, but there are two Washingtons that Egyptian political visitors to the capital do not know. The first Washington is “political Washington” that includes think tanks, media outlets, the Department of State and Congress.

The other Washington, which still has the upper hand in drawing US policy on Egypt, is “strategic Washington” made up of the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies. The itinerary of Washington guests usually includes routine meetings at the Department of State, and the Middle East desk at the White House’s National Security Council. Meanwhile, in Congress, members do not turn down meetings with Egyptians as long as they take place in their offices so they don’t waste time commuting.

Visitors also routinely meet with representatives of US organisations who are interested in Egyptian affairs for a variety of reasons. These meetings focus on building democracy in Egypt and the progress and setbacks of the transitional period. This is all similar to what would happened during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

US confusion on the Egyptian issue is still prevalent, although nearly two and a half years have passed since the start of the Egyptian revolution and nearly one year has passed since Morsi came to power. Several factors played, and continue to play, a key role in deepening this confusion, most notably:

First, public opinion in the new Egypt has a greater impact on the country’s policies since the success of the January 25 Revolution. This did not exist for 30 years under Mubarak but now could cause Egypt’s new rulers to adopt policies that comply with the aspirations of the majority of Egyptians. This may not align with the US perspective of the region, and so Washington worries the Egyptian people would become hostile towards it if it takes another position.

Second, the rising influence of moderate and conservative Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Although this trend is not exclusive to Egypt’s domestic scene and is present in most Arab states where free elections take place, the Muslim Brotherhood and its history gives Egypt a more important role. The fact that Washington is unfamiliar with this group and conservative Salafist groups has “compounded” the Obama administration’s confusion.

Third, the impact of the US’s position and policies regarding Egypt on its key relations with Washington allies, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Fourth, Washington’s fear that Egypt’s new rulers will create another despotic state using tools of democracy, such as elections, the constitution and the legislature.

Most of Washington’s visitors prefer not to talk about restructuring relations between the two countries, which have not changed even after Morsi came to power. They prefer to diagnose ties between Washington and Cairo through naïve questions about whether the administration will alter aid to Morsi, and what will they do with the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington knows well that since it did not withdraw this assistance under Mubarak or SCAF, it can never do this with a regime led by the first-ever freely elected president in Egypt.

Pentagon officials also always boast that the top tier of commanders in the Egyptian army are “educated and trained in the US; we know them and can talk to them.”

Visitors from Egypt’s political elite to Washington choose to focus on the US role and influence inside Egypt, and some of them want Washington to directly or partially play a key role in changing the political equation in Egypt.

These outlooks reflect two disturbing mindsets. The first diminishes the role, power and desire of the Egyptian people in what has happened and is happening since 25 January 2011 until today. The second greatly exaggerates the US role and also demonstrates a misunderstanding of Washington’s goals and dynamics of decision-making regarding Egypt.

The future of ruling Egypt will be decided in the alleys and on the streets of Egypt, not in the halls and corridors of Washington.

Short link: