The Middle East Channel

Clouded U.S. policy on Egypt

During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, ...


During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.

However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country’s newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability. 

That bargain, which was largely premised on Egyptian support for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, granted the Mubarak regime wide latitude to repress its own people in exchange for regional security cooperation. The United States became accustomed to dealing with Mubarak and his inner circle, with little need to cultivate broad ties.

Since the fall of Mubarak, the United States has adopted a defensive crouch in Egypt that is primarily driven by fears that the treaty might be discarded by Egypt’s new rulers. This narrow and blinkered approach to Egypt misunderstands Egyptian national interests, and undermines the formulation of constructive policies. It also has pushed the United States to focus outsized attention on the cultivation of ties with the now ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, often heedless of broader Egyptian political dynamics.

The United States cannot micromanage Egyptian politics, but it retains real influence and it can, at the very least, attempt to staunch negative trends as opposed to reinforcing moral hazards. The current Egyptian government now believes in its own centrality and strategic significance, and it further believes that it has the uncritical support of the United States and the international community.

While the fevered imaginings of secret deals between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood that have become an unfortunate fixture of post-Mubarak political discourse have no basis in reality, it is true that the United States has overcompensated in its efforts to reverse the flawed policies of the recent past when Islamists were shunned and their repression encouraged.

Following Mubarak’s ouster, the Obama administration rightfully began an uncomfortable yet much-needed engagement with Egypt’s most coherent and dominant political force, the Muslim Brotherhood. This singular focus on the Brotherhood, however, has often made little distinction between the social movement as a whole, and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. In and of itself, this is problematic, as the Brotherhood has yet to normalize its legal status and retains a total lack of transparency regarding its funding and its relationship with the country’s elected leaders.

While the Brothers have a long history of anti-Western and anti-American thought, they have been consistent in their approach to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty despite their deep-seated hostility to Israel, which often veers into the realm of anti-Semitism, and the widespread popular anger with the occupation of Palestinian lands and the failure of the peace process. It is perhaps one of the few areas where the words and deeds of the Muslim Brotherhood have not diverged.

The reasons for this consistency should be clear to the United States, but too often it views the Camp David bargain as the outcome of a coercive aid arrangement and therefore as perpetually at risk. Fundamentally, upholding the treaty is an enduring Egyptian national interest. It is a threshold for continued international legitimacy at a time when Egypt will require substantial international assistance and support. Further, the still-powerful national security establishment has a dispositive voice on such critical matters, and it has made abundantly clear that Egypt has no intention of abrogating its treaty obligations.

Despite this reality, the United States has shaped its policy on Egypt with a narrow focus, first and foremost, on the peace treaty and its sustainability. While this is a key U.S. interest, U.S. policy on Egypt does not assure the protection of that and other interests, which depend primarily on a stable and functioning Egypt.

The short tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi has been marked by the maximizing of factional power and the absence of meaningful reform or even governance. The growing polarization in the country has produced an intractable political crisis that makes dealing with the country’s interlinked economic and social crises impossible. The present course of exclusionary unilateralism mixed with repressive actions is a path to instability, with no guarantees of Egypt muddling its way through.

To make matters worse, these negative political trends have been unintentionally encouraged by U.S. signals. This was abundantly clear in the aftermath of the November 2012 Israeli military attack on Gaza, when Egypt played an important role in the negotiation of a ceasefire. The spiral of events that followed were damaging to the prospects of an inclusive and stable Egypt and to the reputation of the United States. At root, the United States overestimated the options for Egypt in the face of the fighting in Gaza. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological affinity and strong links with Hamas, Egypt’s enduring interests are a durable check against foreign policy adventurism, particularly at this current vulnerable juncture. In the aftermath of that foreign policy victory and a visit by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Morsi quickly parlayed his newfound capital to expand his authorities in autocratic fashion. In his constitutional declaration on November 22, Morsi immunized his actions from judicial review in an effort to protect the Islamist-dominated constitutional drafting process. This myopic step institutionalized Egypt’s political crisis and ensured that the country’s foundational document would be a destabilizing element in the country’s future.

With Morsi’s cooperation on Gaza firmly in mind, the United States was slow to understand the significance of this constitutional crisis, which had permanent ramifications, and was loathe to place blame at the feet of its newfound partner. In various official statements and readouts, the United States engaged in stark equivalence that avoided the causes of the country’s crisis and appropriate blame.

While this approach is partly fuelled by understandable frustrations in dealing with Egypt’s fragmented and ineffectual opposition, these disappointments have clouded judgments, resulting in a wide degree of latitude with respect to the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. While Morsi continues to enjoy electoral legitimacy, the ballot box cannot be a route for majoritarian repression.

These mistakes were crystallized when the United States hosted an Egyptian official at the White House in the midst of the crisis. The meeting between Dr. Essam al-Haddad, the assistant to the president for foreign relations and international cooperation, and the U.S. national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, included an extensive drop-by from Obama. A former senior Egyptian diplomat who played a key role in managing U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations expressed his dismay to me that such a meeting could take place in the midst of Egypt’s ongoing political crisis. While noting the difficulty of choreographing such meetings, he assumed that the meeting represented a sign of outward support for the Muslim Brothers in their political struggle back home. At best, this was a case of clumsy diplomacy. At worst, it represents a mistaken strategic choice.  

While the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys its current electoral supremacy, the United States should make no assumptions about the permanence of its position. The fluidity of the Egyptian electorate and the immense challenges before the current government suggest that this preeminence is not inevitable.

The United States must certainly remain engaged with Egypt and calls for blunt and immediate conditionality of U.S. aid are impractical and potentially counterproductive. But the United States should reappraise the broader aid relationship and fashion workable conditionality arrangements. In the immediate future, the United States is not without other forms of influence. Egypt’s current leaders crave international acceptance and legitimacy and are reliant on outside support and assistance, particularly from international financial institutions. The United States should use those tools to try to shape how Egypt’s leaders perceive their interests, recognizing the inherent limitations involved, and it should synchronize these efforts with allies.

With Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to visit Egypt for the first time in the coming days, he should make clear that under the circumstances the United States is not in a position to host Morsi, as is currently planned for later in the spring.  

The United States rightfully claims that it does not support specific political parties in Egypt but is instead supportive of the democratic process. Its recent actions have undermined this intent. More importantly, by signaling its unconditional acceptance of Morsi and his government, the United States has encouraged the very actions that now jeopardize the success of Egypt’s transition from authoritarianism.

The ultimate check on the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood lies with Egypt’s citizens, but at the very least, the United States should refrain from encouraging the troubling impulses exhibited by the Brothers in their short, troubled time in power. A re-tooled authoritarian bargain is no longer on offer, and succumbing to old patterns will only to serve to jeopardize U.S. interests and encourage Egypt’s present unsustainable course.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @mwhanna1.

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