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Misinterpreting Egypt in Congress

A hearing session on Egypt in the US House of Representatives reflects the prejudice and rigidity of the liberal camp in Washington

Saeed Okasha , Wednesday 9 Sep 2020
Misinterpreting Egypt in Congress
Misinterpreting Egypt in Congress
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The Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives held a hearing on Wednesday 9 September entitled “Egypt: Trends in politics, economics, and human rights,” with the notice of the time and website for the meeting being posted only a week ahead of time.

The four witnesses all have direct connections with Egypt, in most cases academic. They are researchers associated with US think tanks and have served with previous US administrations and/or have been consulted by US officials in order to devise US policies towards developments in the Middle East.

The first is Michele Dunne, director and a senior fellow in the Middle East Programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She was a Middle East specialist at the US State Department from 1986 to 2003 and has also served the US government in numerous capacities, including at the US Embassy in Cairo.

In her writings on Egypt, Dunne has been generally critical of the Egyptian government since the 30 June 2013 grassroots uprising that ousted Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt with support from the army. As a researcher and scholar, Dunne may perhaps feel a certain frustration at her inability to understand the society and culture of the region to which she has dedicated her career.

She freely projects general principles and maxims familiar to US society onto completely different sociocultural realities and contexts, while she fails to appreciate that democracy and human rights, as conceived in the West, are a culmination of a process of socioeconomic evolution and not mere slogans or policies that can be handed down from above through a certain system of government.

Another possible cause of Dunne’s frustration is her inability to grasp the fascist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and its exclusivist ideology that is explicitly discriminatory against women and against other faiths.

Any responsible academic should be able to see that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a political party whose members may be open to new ideas, but is rather a closed religio-political cult whose members’ thinking cannot be induced to conform to the modern world at any level beyond lip service. 

To believe otherwise would be both naive and impractical. But Dunne continues to ignore such facts, and in her writings she intermittently appeals for the assimilation of the terrorist group into political life despite its record of repression of freedom of opinion and expression, the burning of churches, the restrictions on women’s rights and the other crimes and human-rights abuses it perpetrated during its short period of rule in Egypt.

The second witness is Amy Hawthorne, a former colleague of Dunne’s at the Carnegie Endowment and is currently deputy director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). She wrote an article that appeared in the US magazine Foreign Policy in February 2019 entitled “Worse than Mubarak”, in which she compared the eras of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and present President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and concluded that the two men were cut from the same cloth.

Evidently, Hawthorne could not see past the fact that both presidents had military backgrounds and that they both clashed violently with the Muslim Brotherhood. She concluded that just as Nasser’s pan-Arab project had jeopardised US interests in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, so too did Al-Sisi’s project to impose “military-style control” in Egypt. This, she said, imperilled US interests at present with potentially graver consequences. 

Hawthorne has apparently ignored the totally different historical contexts that gave rise to the Nasserist and Al-Sisi regimes.

The world order in the 1950s was leagues away from that in the 2010s, and the threats to international peace and stability then were of an entirely different order. But even setting such contextual disparities aside, Al-Sisi’s political outlook bears no resemblance to that of Nasser.

The latter built a regime around a nationalist and pan-Arab project that sought to undermine the interests of the US, the West, and the allied powers in the Gulf and to combat Israel. Al-Sisi seeks to augment Egypt’s interests through close relations with the US, Europe, and the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE above all. It is also clear that he is determined to uphold the peace treaty with Israel and that he supports the recent US-sponsored peace agreement between the UAE and Israel.

It should also be borne in mind that Egypt, under Al-Sisi, is a cornerstone of the international fight against terrorism, a role that has Washington’s full support. In sum, contrary to Hawthorne’s claim, there is no comparison between the Nasserist model and Al-Sisi’s government in terms of foreign policy.

If there are similarities between the two, they are to be found at the domestic level and, specifically, in their focus on alleviating the plight of the poor, urban development and eliminating informal housing areas, and in building a state on the basis of a concept of citizenship free of transnational identity ideologies.

FURTHER WITNESSES

The third witness at the House of Representatives meeting is Tamara Cofman Wittes, an American writer and public figure who is also a senior fellow specialising in the Middle East at the US Brookings Institution.

In her book Freedom’s Unsteady March (2008), Wittes advised the Bush administration, then in office in the US, to persist in promoting democratic transformation in the Arab region despite the failure of the US-led invasion to bring democracy to Iraq.

Like Dunne and Hawthorne, Wittes overlooks the level of socio-economic evolution in the region as a critical factor in the potential for successful democratic transition. Nor does she appear to be sorry for the drastic consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq staged in the name of “fighting dictatorship and the sponsors of terrorism”. She says nothing about the civil war it precipitated, the collapse of the state and society, the empowerment of the fiercest terrorist trends seen in the region, such as the Islamic State (IS) group, and the deaths or displacement of millions of Iraqi civilians.

The fourth speaker is Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom, another US think tank. Tadros is an Egyptian who studied in the US, eventually settled there, and became involved in Middle Eastern studies. Although also critical of the Egyptian government, Tadros naturally does not share the other speakers’ positive views on political Islam.

His criticisms focus on religious freedoms, and if some aspects of his criticisms are warranted, especially with regard to the handling of extremist violence and hostility directed towards Egypt’s Copts, he ignores the immense efforts the government has been making under President Al-Sisi’s direction to rebuild churches burned by the Muslim Brothers and Salafis, and he underplays the immense socio-cultural obstacles that have stood in the way of the implementation of anti-discriminatory legislation. 

President Al-Sisi is determined to steer Egypt towards religious moderation and tolerance, but he has had to tread carefully for fear that pushing the reform discourse too fast could boomerang and jeopardise social cohesion. Al-Sisi believes that raising living standards, especially in Upper Egypt and the countryside, will create the climate most conducive to the dissemination of the discourse of religious reform and offer brighter horizons for society in general.

From the foregoing overview of the four researchers scheduled to testify at the Congressional hearing on 9 September, it is not difficult to predict the discourse that will predominate: support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a demand for the release of Brotherhood prisoners who have been handed final verdicts for their involvement in terrorist acts and incitement to violence, sweeping condemnation of Egypt on human-rights issues based on the customary hand-me-down allegations, and uncorroborated estimates on numbers of detainees and other unsubstantiated claims we have heard over and over again since the beginning of Al-Sisi’s rule.

A certain amount of time will also be given to religious freedoms and the violations of the rights of Copts and other Christians. 

The hearing would simultaneously serve as a channel to mobilise support in Washington for the Brotherhood organisation in the name of “fighting dictatorship in the Middle East”. Ultimately, the aim is to enable this terrorist organisation to regain its footing after the series of blows it sustained from the death of former Egyptian Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, the infighting between its international branches in Turkey and Qatar, the death of Brotherhood leader Essam Al-Arian and, most recently, the arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, the acting Brotherhood supreme guide who had remained in hiding for seven years until the Egyptian security services unearthed his whereabouts last month.

The House’s democratic majority is escalating the confrontation with US President Donald Trump by attacking his close allies in the Middle East, namely Egypt, and is using events such as Wednesday’s hearing session to embarrass the US administration in a bid to weaken Trump’s chances in November’s presidential elections.

*The writer is an expert in US affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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