The Middle East Channel

Watching Cairo from Washington

The United States government has had to make some tough calls on Egypt over the last few years. Did the events of January 25, 2011 constitute a revolution? Was the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to the presidency the beginning of a revolution of a different kind? Did General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s non-coup ...

Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images
Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images

The United States government has had to make some tough calls on Egypt over the last few years. Did the events of January 25, 2011 constitute a revolution? Was the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to the presidency the beginning of a revolution of a different kind? Did General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s non-coup constitute the real revolution? These definitional questions were not merely academic. As the director for intelligence and research for the Middle East at the State Department over the last few years, I saw firsthand that the administration was preoccupied with such questions at the highest levels of government. Our inability to answer them even for ourselves has been crippling. The Hamlet complex has been stifling decisions, from Egypt to Syria to Iran, and now back to Egypt. In every case, actions not taken were merely deferred, only to be taken at a later time at the least propitious moment, when a Shakespearean denouement was all but inevitable.

The truth is that government analysts were caught flat-footed by the events in Tunisia and Egypt as they first unfolded. The magnitude and import of Tunisia eluded even the most astute among us. By the third day of events in Egypt in 2011, however, we were sure Hosni Mubarak was going to fall. Seeing, on live TV, the total lack of fear among protesters as they chased after and burnt police vans was sufficient to underline that something fundamental had changed. Those who discounted Tahrir Square as a genuine revolution argued for staying the course, out of loyalty to Mubarak and for safeguarding U.S. security interests from the unknown to follow should he be toppled. Values and accurate forecasting fortunately won the day, and Mubarak’s denying the will of his people was decried. 

We then inclined toward fair and free elections as in the best interests of Egypt, the region, and the United States. We got some big things right. We projected a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) victory at the polls — not because we thought they represented a majority, but because they were the largest plurality and the most organized one at that point. We projected further that the military, given that it had abstained from using force to keep Mubarak in office, would not deny the MB its victory at the polls, international observers or not. In analytic and political circles, the prevailing educated opinion was that the MB would respect certain redlines, particularly in foreign policy and regional security matters. Those redlines would be the United States’s, Israel’s, Saudi Arabia’s, and, consequently, those of the Egyptian armed forces as well. In return, the military would allow the MB its turn at the wheel. The 20 percent portion of the parliamentary polls for the Salafis was certainly a surprise, but not so much so that it distracted from the potential of a moderate MB having to steer a careful middle course between its critics on both sides of the isle.

Enter Morsi — the man who would be president. At first, we were impressed. The new president made some pragmatic moves on the foreign policy side of things, such as his acceptance of Egypt’s security arrangements with Israel and his visit to Iran while maintaining, in public at least, respect for Saudi Arabia. Less admirably, Morsi waded knee-high into an ugly dance with Egypt’s judiciary and governmental bureaucracy, hiring and firing civil servants seemingly at will and following, it seems, only the advice of the MB’s Shura Council in making those decisions. Again, those among us who did not think of January 25 as a revolution decried the desecration of particularly the Egyptian judiciary, with its long (though checkered) history of professionalism.

Knowing the bad history between Egypt’s military and the MB, and realizing that high-level bureaucrats were all Mubarak appointees, it was logical enough that Morsi would try to remove pillars of the old regime. Students of revolution will certainly recall that Salvador Allende committed a fatal flaw in trying to reason with the old regime and openly invited them to share in governing the new Chile, only to be outmaneuvered by civil servants, labor unionists, and the military — not to mention the helping hand of Uncle Sam to the north. Morsi could not, logically, be faulted for trying to build the new regime with new people, more loyal to "the revolution" than to Mubarak. Where he can, and should be faulted, lies in that he thought that his 52 percent victory at the polls allowed him to build the MB’s long-awaited dream state in total disregard of the wishes of the other half of Egypt. Morsi assumed that, as president, he had full legitimacy on his side. He did not realize how badly he needed some allies outside his own party in order to proceed safely and, more importantly, that the new Egypt could not be, totally at least, in the image of the MB, and that he had, of necessity, the obligation to include the other dreamers who were instrumental in driving Mubarak from office.

Egypt’s military played the game well. Biding its time and, perhaps doing more behind the scenes than was evident to its American and European friends, it waited for the right moment to pounce on the unsuspecting Morsi. Egyptian comic, Bassem Youssef, nailed it in portraying the man as a buffoon: He had no clue and, in the end, no business running the Egyptian state. But where does Egypt’s military take the Egyptian state, now that it has taken away the keys from the MB and is sitting squarely behind the wheel itself? Surely it can’t be thinking of bringing Mubarak back (practically from the dead)! No, the latter’s release is more likely a promise made to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, in return for the $12 billion pledged (and so far not actually delivered, as far as we know).

In a rational world, the MB, the military, old Mubarak figureheads, and, yes, even the idealists of April 6 and the other secular or liberal oppositionists would all sit down and truly and honestly put their heads together, much as the U.S. founding fathers did over 300 years ago, and contemplate the building of a truly democratic state. The mood is too ugly in the streets today, however, to allow for a genuinely inclusive national dialogue. The late Saudi philosopher (in exile of course) Abdallah al-Qussaimi wrote a book about this supposition and offered the answer in the book’s title: The World is Not Rational (al-Alam Laisa Aqlan). In the real world we live in, what is happening in Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole, is not a rational rewriting of social contracts. It is, rather, a brutal struggle for power. The MB could not well join the efforts to rebuild the state with over 2,000 of its leadership cadres behind bars and Sisi seems hell bent on keeping them there. Most likely, rather than collectively pursuing a common national interest, the various parties in Egypt will continue to follow their respective selfish interests whatever the cost to ordinary Egyptians. The next few years, to borrow Winston Churchill’s words, promise nothing but blood, sweat, and tears.

Where does that leave the United States and its allies? The Arab Uprising was not predictable, at least in its timing and depth. Once it was underway, however, we should have been better, and faster, at gaming options and predicting consequences. The military’s intervention, given Morsi’s blundering, should’ve been anticipated. Taking three weeks to decide on the definition of a coup is not acceptable for a super power. One of the reasons for our flat-footedness when it comes to Egypt is a result of our having accepted for years the limitations on our access and ability to offer advice, imposed on us by the Mubarak regime. The fault lies not with the fast pace of events but in ourselves. The United States and the world cannot just watch as bloody events unfold in the most populous Arab country, both on the edge of the Nile and bordering as it does both Gaza and Israel. Saudi billions, in and of themselves, will not solve Egypt’s long-term problems. Cutting off U.S. aid to gain leverage won’t work at this late stage in the game. Egypt needs above all else political reconciliation and a bold multi-year economic plan. The United States, given the low regard most Egyptians have for it at the moment, cannot wade into this quagmire alone. We can and should be helping put together a concert of donors to include the European Union, Japan, and even Russia and China if they’ll come along, to press for a credible national dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations, with the serious carrot of an international Marshall plan for lifting Egypt out of the economic disaster in which it now finds itself. The United States needs to shed the doubts that have plagued it and face up courageously to the challenge that lies ahead.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a senior fellow for the Middle East and National Security at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of "Nasrallah’s ‘Bring it on! Moment" in the Cairo Review.