Mubarak with a Beard?

The United States needs to tell Egypt's new president that there's no going back to the old, bad ways.


Reflecting on the lessons of the Arab uprisings in November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was adamant that traditional U.S. policies in the region were no longer tenable. "[A]s the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear," she said "the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent." But such revelations necessitate drastic changes, and in the face of unanticipated events and crises, it’s all too easy for the familiar policies of the past to re-emerge. As Egypt descends again into turmoil over the country’s fraught constitution-writing process, it appears that the United States is once again embracing the past and eschewing the lessons it learned the hard way during the uprising.

In a move that bears the hallmark of U.S. policy in the Mubarak era, the United States has largely reduced its relationship with Egypt to the maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel and withheld serious judgment of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, even as it actively undermines the country’s already troubled democratic transition.

The most severe political crisis to strike Egypt since the fall of Mubarak was sparked by President Mohamed Morsy’s Nov. 22 constitutional decree, which granted the executive absolute authority and immunized his decisions from judicial review for the remainder of the transitional period. Morsy defended the move as an attempt to protect the constituent assembly — tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution — from potential judicial dissolution, but his unilateral steps provoked outrage among opposition forces who again took to the streets.

The crisis deepened when the president directed the assembly to ram through a governing document in a chaotic, all-night session that made a mockery of deliberative constitutional process and design. If approved in a hastily called referendum, that slipshod document will bound Egypt’s political future and institutionalize its crisis. With a significant portion of the country’s judges declaring a strike in response to Morsy’s declaration and dueling protesters mobilizing on opposing sides, Egypt’s flawed transition now risks tipping into outright civil strife and prolonged instability.

Morsy’s actions presented the United States with a difficult choice: Should it challenge an elected Egyptian president just as the two countries have begun to reconstruct bilateral ties? This choice was complicated further by the close cooperation and pragmatism displayed by Morsy and his government in securing a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip last month. These efforts won the Egyptian president newfound confidence in Washington, and administration officials were quick to shower him with praise.

But rather than using his burnished reputation as a regional leader to forge a more consensual and stable transition back home, Morsy capitalized on the favorable international political climate by making an untenable and unjustifiable power grab that has plunged Egypt into crisis and exacerbated existing divisions.

Morsy’s moves were particularly damaging to the United States since he made his initial announcement the day after meeting with Clinton to finalize details of the Gaza ceasefire. The timing raised the unfounded specter among already suspicious Egyptians that the Brotherhood had cleared their undemocratic power play with the now-grateful Americans.

The Obama administration’s response has only reinforced those fears — though it does not justify the more baroque conspiracy theories about a secret U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood pact. Following Morsy’s decree, the State Department released a tepid statement referencing "concerns" in the international community. The statement urged calm and encouraged "all parties to work together," calling for "all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue." The decision not to deliver a White House statement further indicated that the Obama administration wished to downplay the significance of Morsy’s moves.

But the administration’s conservative response was woefully short-sighted and reflected old modes of thinking that were ostensibly discarded in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

First, by downplaying U.S. concerns about Morsy’s maneuvering, the United States seems to have forgotten the most important lesson of the Arab uprisings: Usurping authority or trampling rights are not recipes for political stability. The scenes of outraged opposition in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt indicate that the Brotherhood cannot claim to represent Egypt by itself. Its efforts to do so bode ill for the country’s future and have precipitated a climate where political contestation is now accompanied with overt threats and incendiary rhetoric. 

An unstable Egypt led by repressive rulers is a bad bet for the United States — from the perspective of values and interests. A chaotic transition has tested America’s diplomatic patience, but that challenge pales in comparison to the prospect of chronic instability and civil strife. With Egypt’s economic woes high on the list of worries faced by U.S. officials, it bears mentioning that economic reform and growth will never take root so long as the political process remains deadlocked.

Second, the American response was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and a limited view of Egypt as a client state. While it is true that the treaty underpins U.S. security policy in the region, avoiding criticisms of Egypt’s authoritarian tendencies does little to secure American interests.

For too long, the United States has seen the Egypt-Israel peace as perpetually vulnerable and sustainable only through American largesse. The peace between Egypt and Israel is a cold one, and it will undoubtedly become colder still. It is hampered by the unyielding occupation of Palestinian lands and the ever-expanding settlement project. With an Islamist-led government now in place in Egypt, the deep-seated anti-Israel sentiments of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affinity for Islamist fellow-travelers such as Hamas will reshape regional dynamics. Egypt will undoubtedly play a greater role in championing the Palestinian cause, and future Egyptian governments will abandon the anti-Hamas policies long pursued by the Mubarak regime.

But despite the tangible shifts in atmospherics, symbolism, and policies, regime change in Egypt will not alter the underlying strategic interests that pushed Anwar Sadat to seek a separate peace with Egypt’s bitter enemy. Partly, this is a function of the national security establishment’s continued stewardship of the Israel portfolio. While the parameters of the pact struck between the president and his military are not formally enshrined or even fully defined, the military and intelligence services still bound the policy discussions on issues such as Gaza.

Most importantly, Morsy’s pragmatism should not come as a surprise. It is a clear reflection of enduring national interests and the infeasibility of aggression towards Israel. The prohibitive costs of such conflict — both materially and for Egypt’s position in the international community — mean that the fundamental bargain underlying this cold peace is far more durable than is commonly presumed. Rewarding Morsy for his pragmatic approach to the recent Gaza conflict is a case of offering inducements for a policy already decided.

In her November 2011 speech, Clinton declared that we "cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives." That long run is here. The United States retains influence, particularly in light of Egypt’s dire need for multilateral financial assistance and diplomatic support. Conditioning aid and support is complicated and often over-hyped, but it is a much-needed shift that would represent a break from the blank checks so often given to Egypt’s leaders.

With much of the judiciary on strike and the prospect of prolonged street protests high, Egypt’s democratic future is in peril. While not foreordained, a slow drift toward illiberal majoritarianism is now distinctly possible, as is the attendant instability that is likely to ensue. Injecting the United States more prominently in the current crisis also comes with risks, especially in light of America’s checkered history in Egypt. But given the United States’ deep ties, the Obama administration should understand that the choice between values and interests is a false one in this instance.

If America acquiesces anew to authoritarian behavior in Cairo, it won’t win a new stable ally; it will only further alienate the many Egyptians who find the transactional nature of U.S.-Egyptian ties repugnant. Even worse, it will encourage a destructive political culture that provides an unstable foundation for future relations.

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