INTERVIEW: US attitudes to the Middle East

Bassem Aly , Thursday 23 Sep 2021

Former US deputy assistant secretary of defence Simone Ledeen speaks to Al-Ahram Weekly about strategic developments in the region

US attitudes to the Middle East

On 7 September, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence Simone Ledeen wrote an opinion article in the Washington political magazine The Hill arguing that her country should continue to provide security assistance to Egypt.

US attitudes to the Middle East

Some Democratic Party voices had been calling for the opposite, including Senator Christopher Murphy. Ledeen feared that Egypt might lose US financial support as the House of Representatives had passed a bill that suggested withholding US$150 million from it.

“If promoting human rights was a primary consideration, the Biden administration would not support the Taliban – a designated terrorist organisation under the UN and the US treasury department and one which this past week blamed the US for the September 11 terrorist attacks,” Ledeen said.

Washington should not stop its financial and military support to Egypt, she said, pointing to the security challenges the latter has faced, including the Sinai insurgency, war in neighbouring Libya and the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with Ethiopia.

However, on 15 September, the Biden administration withheld $130 million of US military aid to Egypt. 

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Ledeen discussed a number of regional issues in an interview that took place three days before the Biden administration’s decision to proceed with aid restrictions on Egypt. US deputy assistant secretary of defence until January 2021, Leeden is a principal at EVG Consulting and has designed policies towards many Middle Eastern states.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken about a potential comeback by Al-Qaeda after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. How could this development affect Egypt, including the Sinai insurgency, and the wider Middle East?

The US surrender in Afghanistan is the greatest recruitment event for terrorist organisations since September 11 2001. Certainly Al-Qaeda, Daesh [the Islamic State group] and other extremist groups will benefit from this catastrophe, and we should expect an increase in fundraising and membership in these groups. Statements by Al-Qaeda and others celebrating the Taliban’s victory indicate they feel emboldened by it. Al-Qaeda has survived, and a new generation of recruits will be fighting in a conflict that began before many of them were born. In my view, Egypt should be worried about renewed energy and support behind the Sinai-based insurgency.   

How can the world now avoid a new wave of global terrorism?

I would say broadly and until now the US has provided leadership on this issue because of the massive attacks we sustained 20 years ago. That was a policy decision to pursue terrorism and terrorists wherever they were. But 20 years later, and given the policy decisions especially of the current administration and some of the previous ones as well, it’s clear that the United States has decided to change its counterterrorism strategy.

I can say that the current administration does not want to provide leadership on this issue. Given the new realities that we are all living in together, I think the most helpful thing to do is to support our like-minded partners and allies who are also, to different degrees, very interested in fighting terrorism. The violent extremist ideology is a threat to people living worldwide, and many countries need assistance in order to effectively fight terrorism. That’s why continued US assistance, security cooperation, intelligence support and partnership will be so important even if we don’t want to provide leadership.

Amid the ongoing insurgency in Sinai and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, what kind of support should the Biden administration provide to Egypt?

I think, first and foremost, Egypt has made some formal requests for certain defence articles and weapons’ systems. At this point, I think the Biden administration might want to reconsider its original approach and response to these requests. The reason is that the situation for Egypt is changing, and not in a positive way. It’s not about people coming from Afghanistan or other places. It’s a matter of internal radicalisation because what we have just witnessed in Afghanistan is a major recruiting boost for terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, Daesh or any of these groups. These groups now see that it’s possible to win against the United States because we surrendered, and this is a massive recruiting tool for them. So, the threat will also increase internally as a result.

Daesh, although they still have pockets, was destroyed in Iraq and Syria, and there is no longer a piece of land that is called the Islamic caliphate, which was a big victory for the forces trying to combat these radical, violent groups. But now we are in a difficult situation, and it may last for a number of years. I think we can collectively figure it out. So, Egypt needs a lot of assistance, and I always like to see it coming from the United States or US allies. It would also be great if Israel can provide additional assistance in terms of counterterrorism, and Gulf nations as well share the view that these radical, Islamist groups are dangerous to all of our societies.

Does this indicate that attacks by insurgents in Sinai might increase?

Unfortunately, yes. I think they are going to feel motivated by recent events, and that may in turn increase their ability to raise money and recruit new fighters. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, I am a bit pessimistic. This is why increased aid is needed as soon as possible.

Egypt also had aid problems with the former Obama administration in the US. Why do such problems grow during Democratic Party administrations?

I wrote about this in a piece for the Human Interest, where I said that “president Barack Obama in his historic June 2009 New Beginning speech in Cairo may have intended to signal that realism would finally catch up to the aspirations of those who continued to view Egypt as the historic heart of the Arab world. He argued that with American diplomacy and assurances of a more benevolent approach to mutual respect, concrete actions would demonstrably reduce extremism. Of course, that did not happen. Apparently, even the former president has realised the folly of substituting hope for policy and words for reality.”

In his most recent writings, Obama admits that “in the end, the facts of what happened are the facts, and I’m left with the same set of questions I first wrestled with as a young organiser. How useful is it to describe the world as it should be when efforts to achieve that world are bound to fall short?... [Is] it possible that abstract principles and high-minded ideals were and always will be nothing more than a pretense, a palliative, a way to beat back despair, but no match for the more primal urges that really moved us… no matter what we said or did?” 

The tripartite crisis between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is ongoing. Is the Biden administration willing to play a mediating role in the dispute? 

Until recently, there was no indication that the Biden administration was interested in mediating in the Nile crisis between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The recent focus on Ethiopia has been exclusively with respect to the situation in Tigray. Several months ago, the administration appointed Jeffrey Feltman as special envoy to the Horn of Africa. Hopefully this is a focus area for him – he could play an important role in mediating this dispute in order to avoid escalating it.

Feltman has visited parties to the crisis and the Gulf and African states. But he has not announced the results of his tours.

I think that the appointment of Ambassador Feltman is definitely a positive statement in terms of how much the Biden administration wants to solve this issue. If it wasn’t a priority, I don’t think they would have bothered to appoint someone in that role. So that’s a good sign. But usually in these sorts of dialogues there is no statement when nothing gets resolved, or the statement might just be “everyone met.” I don’t really have a lot of insight into the specifics of the discussions or how hard Feltman was pushing for a resolution, especially with the Ethiopians. But I think it’s very clear that unless there is a solution, there is going to be some sort of military crisis or intervention that nobody wants, maybe except for the Ethiopians. Nobody wants to say that, but this is sort of where things are lurching towards.

The concern really is that the Ethiopians are dealing with their own insurgency in Tigray, and this is almost a good way to unite the country against the common enemy, which is unfortunately Egypt and to a certain extent Sudan. All that Egypt and Sudan want is to ensure that water levels in the Nile remain the same, and there is no clarity around – if the GERD is fully filled – the threats of water access for Egypt and Sudan. You are not going to make all the parties happy here: there has to be some sort of agreement based on mutual understanding that nobody wants a military intervention. But the longer this goes on without a formal agreement, the Ethiopians will continue to fill the GERD, and I fear what the reaction will be. By the way, I don’t think it’s unreasonable, and the Ethiopians have not been forced to make any changes to their plans so far. So, I hope Ambassador Feltman and the Biden administration are heavily pressuring Ethiopia to stop its dangerous activities. A new conflict is really not what anyone is looking forward to at this time. Water security is an existential threat to any country.

Libya is facing many post-ceasefire challenges at present, including the withdrawal of foreign fighters, the disarming of armed groups and reduced international involvement in the peace process. How can the Biden administration push this process forward?

So far, the Biden administration has not significantly engaged with the relevant parties on Libya. When Biden was vice-president, he argued against any NATO intervention there, and now, given his loss of credibility after the Afghanistan withdrawal, it is difficult to imagine a robust engagement from him or his team, at least in the near term. 

A lot of people have looked at Libya given the broad ceasefire, although it has been very tenuous. The fact that elections are scheduled I would say has sort of reduced the temperature for the amount of time other nations want to spend on Libya. They are looking at these sorts of developments and saying, ok it has calmed down a bit. So, people have moved on, and I think, with the Biden administration coming on board, some nations have been distracted by the Eastern Mediterranean crisis. So, we have all been stuck with the status quo.

For Egypt, most specifically, it has very legitimate concerns about the continued existence of the Syrian militias that are paid by the Turks, and they are part of violent extremist groups. So, they have this ideology that is threatening the current government in Egypt, which has worked so hard to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. So, the continued lack of mediation and leaving everything in place – meaning not demanding the return of Turkish and Syrian fighters to Syria – is a significant problem for Egypt that people are not really paying attention to.

Frankly, this is one of the many reasons why I keep writing about Egypt because I don’t think a lot of people understand the many, many challenges that it is facing right now. Egypt is a long-term ally of the United States and our ally Israel in many ways. So, I see the situation, and I am thinking like this is a really big deal. We need to step up and provide support, and I hope we do. The United Nations and several other nations should help to create real peace in Libya and support the Libyan people to have free-and-fair elections.

Following the recent Palestinian jailbreak in Israel, Palestinian-Israeli tensions are increasing. To avoid large-scale unrest in the West Bank or a new war in the Gaza Strip, what can Washington do to stabilise the situation? 

The Biden administration is unfortunately eager to go back in time, pre the Abraham Accords, and pretend the region has not undergone a significant shift. I believe this is part of the reason for the increased unrest. Egypt’s recent engagement to achieve a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel shows the important leadership role Cairo plays in the region. I hope Washington continues to rely on Egypt and supports its efforts to achieve a more permanent ceasefire. Making sure humanitarian funds do not end up with Hamas terrorists or enrich individual Palestinian leaders would be a good starting point for the Biden administration on this issue.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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