Egyptian revolutions have come as a shock to the pillars of government in Washington because they took them by surprise, and in the US psyche the term “revolution” is linked to the Iranian experience that Washington has suffered deeply from.
The shock of the recent wave of Egyptian revolutions is compounded by the fact they were quick, sudden, and came at a scale beyond anyone’s expectations. It is no surprise Nicholas Burns, former deputy secretary of state, described what is taking place in the Arab region as the largest earthquake since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Burns advised the administration of President Barack Obama to entirely revise its outlook in line with ongoing developments.
The relationship between the US and Egyptian revolutions goes back to 23 July 1952. Once the Armed Forces took over control of the centres of power in Egypt on the morning of 23 July 1952, a special envoy from the Revolutionary Command Council met with US Ambassador to Cairo Jefferson Caffery to inform him “the former regime in Egypt has been overthrown and a new revolutionary regime has accomplished the nationalist aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Washington wanted to ascertain the new Egyptian leadership did not have any communist tendencies and offered financial and economic assistance. Then through US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Washington attempted to draw Egypt to its camp in the Cold War against the USSR. But talks between Dulles and late President Gamal Abdel Nasser on military alliances highlighted the differences between Cairo’s perspective and Washington’s vision. The US wanted Egypt to join the Baghdad Alliance, but Cairo wanted to end the remnants of colonialism and policy of alliances in the region.
Despite Egypt’s founding role in creating the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) as a third alternative during the Cold War, Cairo in fact took the side of the USSR. A special relationship emerged between the two countries built on key economic, military and political ties, a cornerstone of which was Soviet arms and training of the Egyptian army.
In 1956, despite a dispute over funding the construction of the High Dam, Washington supported Egypt in confronting the tripartite attack by Britain, France and Israel. The US’s position, along with the Soviet, helped end the attack. According to several of Nasser’s confidantes, the president was convinced Washington’s main desire was to “overthrow the regime in Egypt since 1965 because its strategic goal is to topple all progressive Arab regimes.”
Then came the January 25 Revolution which put to the test claims by the Egyptian people of Washington’s double standards. On the one hand, Washington claimed it championed freedoms and democracy, but in reality it propped up a despotic dictatorship. Obama’s administration tried to sugar coat its position through public diplomacy. While declaring its support for the aspirations of the Egyptian people for freedom and democracy, it waited until it ascertained that Mubarak would leave before announcing its support for the demands of the Egyptian masses.
After Mubarak’s ouster, Washington tried to maintain its traditional influence by containing these nascent democratic regimes and not allowing major shifts in policies. It sufficed with some changes of figures in power.
Slogans attacking the US were not used in Tahrir Square and other mass gatherings across the country, which caused Obama to mention that Arab revolutions serve US interests, are a genuine opportunity, and open great horizons for new generations in Arab states. Obama described these revolutions in a key address on 19 May 2011 as the winds of freedom sweeping across the region. He added that the forces that overthrew Mubarak should cooperate with the US and Israel.
These statements reflect growing hopes in Washington that Egyptians after the revolution will become more supportive of its policies in the region, and the US’s popularity will increase as a result of the success of the Egyptian revolution.
Then came the events of 30 June and their aftermath, which demonstrated unprecedented US confusion on Egyptian affairs — although nearly two and a half years had passed since the start of Egypt’s revolution.
The US position was especially muddled after the Armed Forces entered the fray and statements were made urging President Mohamed Morsi to hold early elections. But these statements were quickly recanted and replaced with the US administration urging Morsi to think of a way to hold early elections as the only means of ending the crisis.
Then came statements by a senior source saying “we do not know how the political crisis will end and we don’t know the opposition’s fundamental joint position.”
Several factors are playing a key role in deepening this confusion in trying to adopt an objective position. First, public opinion in the new Egypt is playing a greater influential role in the country’s policies since the January 25 Revolution, which was absent for 30 years during Mubarak’s reign. This could contradict US interests in the region, and so Washington feared the Egyptian people — or large sectors of them — would become hostile if it adopted another position.
Second, the growing influence of moderate and conservative Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, which is especially important because this phenomenon was not exclusive to Egypt’s domestic scene but extends to most Arab states where free elections are taking place.
The US’s performance so far has shown Washington has miscalculated what the Egyptian people are capable of since the launch of revolutions that are unwelcome by the US.