Missing in Action
What happened to Washington's policy in Egypt?
CAIRO — In an Egypt ruptured by violence, veering towards civil war, the two opposing sides — Islamists and secularists — can at least agree on one point: The United States is the enemy.
As Egypt self-destructs, with the remaining shreds of stability and democracy eradicated by the military rule, secularists such as Tamarod’s Moheb Doss, Khaled Dawoud of the National Salvation Front, and the activist actor Khaled Abol Naga, all have made public statements making clear they are convinced that the United States is rooting for the Muslim Brotherhood. Their evidence? That U.S. aid continued unabated during Mohamed Morsy’s brief presidency and that the United States muted any criticism of his power grab, maintaining functional relations regardless of his government’s actions. That U.S. Ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson defended the Muslim Brotherhood from its Egyptian critics, and — although President Barack Obama has continued to avoid calling Morsy’s ouster a coup — that other members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment have not pulled punches in lambasting Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s takeover. Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) "If it walks like a duck" comment in a press conference in Cairo last week was perhaps the final straw, prompting a "volcano of anger" as reported in the Egyptian press. One headline in the semi-official Al-Akhbar newspaper screamed: "Egypt rejects the advice of the American Satan."
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, feels equally betrayed. The United States, they say, has barely lifted a finger to help to restore a democratically elected president. (Morsy, as Brotherhood spokesmen have pointed out time and again, was elected with 51.7 percent of the vote in June of 2012.) Even worse, the United States failed to prevent the violent attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood camps in Cairo, leading to 525 dead and counting. As usual, the United States issued wan condemnations, backed by no consequences. Obama’s milquetoast statement on Aug. 15 in response to the violence overtaking Cairo was simply more of the same.
Anyone who thinks the United States still has any currency as a defender or emblem of democracy should come to Egypt. America’s soft power has been in steady decline since Egypt’s 18-day revolution began in 2011. Cognizant of Obama’s behind-the-scenes role in ousting Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians were willing to give the country that had supported the longtime dictator a second chance. But unwavering U.S. support, first for military rule under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and then for Morsy, destroyed any remnant of that goodwill.
Yes, the United States made repeated statements against violations of human rights — such as the infamous "blue bra" incident, in which security forces were photographed stomping on a partially disrobed female protester — and chided Morsy for his constitutional power grab in November 2012, but military aid continued unabated, a fact that was not lost on Egyptians.
Prioritizing regional security interests and military cooperation over the aspirations of the newly empowered Egyptian people has come at a cost. As Egypt has struggled to build a just society based on rule of law and a government accountable to its people, the United States has come to be increasingly viewed as an enemy, rather than a partner or model.
Having initially raised hopes with his now long-forgotten "A New Beginning" Cairo speech, Obama profoundly disappointed those he praised back in 2011 for "how they changed their country, and in so doing, changed the world." By failing to heed the voices of youth and change as they protested the oppressive military and Brotherhood governments, and only weighing in with feeble criticisms of Egyptian authorities, Obama and the United States lost the Egyptian street. Perhaps the president felt that to do more might threaten the military alliance and regional stability. But neither the White House nor the State Department recognized the seismic change in the Egyptian people. As Naga said, they had "banished fear." But this dramatic shift in the national mentality did not manifest itself in Egypt’s post-revolutionary governments. So U.S. officials, who interacted primarily with their peers, missed it. But it was brewing in the street and the tide was turning against Washington — from all sides.
"It is heartbreaking to realize that George Bush was more serious about democracy than Obama," Riham Bahi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, told me.
As the most visible symbol of America’s presence in Cairo, Amb. Patterson consistently reinforced the perception that the United States supported the government in power, whether SCAF or the Muslim Brotherhood, over any opposition. Actions such as siding with the Brotherhood against the critical comedian Bassem Youssef, known as the "Egyptian Jon Stewart"; disparaging "street action" shortly before the June 30 protests that preceded Morsy’s ouster; and taking no action while Western pro-democracy NGOs were raided and closed, have all bolstered this sentiment.
In unusually vitriolic attacks against an American diplomat, posters of Patterson were desecrated by the Tahrir crowds during the June 30 demonstrations. News that the ambassador has been promoted to running the State Department’s Middle East policy as Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs only further angered Egyptians, confirming suspicions that the United States has abandoned the revolution.
The antipathy Egyptians feel toward Patterson has even rubbed off onto Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is reputed to be in line to succeed her in Cairo. Although an experienced Arabist noted for his courageous anti-government positions in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Ford has already been tried and convicted by the Egyptian media of "supporting terrorism" and "running death squads in Iraq," among other charges.
But at least the United States still has its reliable military ally in the Middle East, right? Not so much. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s frequent appeals to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to exercise restraint and seek reconciliation evidently fell on deaf ears. With impunity, the military-installed government has attacked opposition protests, culminating in the brutal suppression of the Brotherhood protest camps on Aug. 14, which have killed hundreds.
It is bad enough that the principal line of communication between the two capitals has been through the military, but the utter failure of the Pentagon to stem the tide calls into question the wisdom of America’s laser focus on its military relationship with Cairo. President Obama apparently has no leverage. Secretary Kerry pleased Egyptians with his comment weeks ago that the Egyptian military had saved democracy, but his interlocutors, the civilian government, have no power.
It is difficult to preach about democracy when U.S. interests so plainly lie not in the empowerment of the people, but in regional security, ensured by our longstanding military relationship with Cairo. The influential and skeptical blogger Mahmoud Salem, a.k.a. "Sandmonkey," confessed that even he was surprised by the extent to which the United States has dealt with Egypt’s current crisis through military channels: "I’m more worried about the American deep state than the Egyptian deep state," he told me.
So, what can the United States do now to increase its leverage in Egypt? Is it time to withhold military aid? Maybe for the sake of the collective American conscience, but cutting off the aid faucet will actually have very little impact in Egypt. As Nile News reporter Mai Saleh recently told me, "If the U.S. does not deliver F-16s, Russia will." Clearly, Obama does not want to take that route yet. As a slap on the wrist, he did, however, cancel the biannual joint Bright Star exercise.
As conspiracy theories about U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood swirl around Cairo (my favorite is that the United States conspired with Hamas — yes, Hamas — to help Morsy and others escape from prison in 2011), the sad truth is that Washington suffers from a breathtaking lack of imagination.
Nothing has changed since Mubarak ruled Egypt. The U.S. government deals with the Egyptian government — whoever and whatever it might be — and only the Egyptian government. All its lip service to heroes of the Jan. 25 revolution like Wael Ghonim and Ahmed Basiony notwithstanding, U.S. policy in Egypt has steadfastly ignored the voice of the people, whether it’s the millions who thronged Egypt’s streets during the 2011 revolution, the Mohammed Mahmoud protesters in 2012, or the Tamarod uprising on June 30 that toppled Morsy. But as Egypt slips back into military rule, the futility of sacrificing ideals for so-called "regional security interests" is becoming clear.
February 2011 may have been the last time the United States had influence over events in Egypt. If Obama had stayed true to the principles he once espoused in Cairo, Washington might have retained some of the trust it gained back then when it helped, however gingerly, push Mubarak from power. Instead, neither the military nor the Islamists nor the opposition heeds the United States. And as the heart of the Arab world is torn apart, America is missing in action.