Terms of Engagement

Washington’s Kid Gloves and Egypt’s Fist

Why has the Obama administration given up on speaking truth to the military rulers in Cairo?


Remember that moving passage in Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo in which the president said, "in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors"? I couldn’t help thinking of that as I read Secretary of State John Kerry’s agonizingly circumscribed remarks during his own visit to Cairo earlier this week, where he insisted that the administration was pleased with Egypt’s progress towards the restoration of democracy, and thus that the decision to temporarily suspend the transfer of weapons — jet fighters, tanks, helicopters and missiles — was not meant as a "punishment."

Kerry’s trip has not, in general, been long on candor. The secretary was probably not saying what was in his heart when he traveled to Saudi Arabia and answered a question  about whether Saudi women should have the right to drive by awkwardly observing that "it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events." But Saudi Arabia is an implacably authoritarian ally, and diplomacy between Washington and Riyadh has always been governed by polite evasion. Indeed, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal returned the favor by denying that relations between the two states were "dramatically deteriorating." What is new is that the United States now feels compelled to treat Egypt with the kid gloves usually reserved for the Saudis.

The inference I draw from Kerry’s delicate toe-dancing is not so much that President Obama has given up on democracy promotion in the Middle East, as is often alleged, as that Egypt has changed in such a way that Washington gains almost nothing by speaking the truth. In 2005, when a previous secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, came to Egypt, she shocked the ruling elite by declaring that "the day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency degrees." But Rice had an audience: the activists who had taken to the streets to protest the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak. And those activists were delighted and emboldened, at least until 2007, when Mubarak sent his thugs into the street to block parliamentary elections, and the White House of President George W. Bush said nothing.

What audience would Kerry have been addressing if he had spoken what one imagines — what one at least would like to imagine — was in his heart? Those same liberal activists, having overthrown the dictator whom Rice and Bush had admonished, have collaborated with the military to depose the democratically elected leaders who replaced Mubarak. Such was the liberals’ hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood government that they have accepted, at least for now, what looks very much like an autocratic restoration. It’s shocking that Kerry said nothing in Cairo about the trial of former president Mohamed Morsy on trumped-up charges of incitement to murder, scheduled to begin the day after Kerry left. But if he had, he would have infuriated both the new regime and its liberal supporters.

In his remarks, Kerry said as often as he could that Egypt’s transition to democracy must be "inclusive," which was code for "include Islamists." But it will be no such thing. Two days after Morsy went on trial, a high court in Cairo upheld a decision to ban the Brotherhood — in a case originally brought by a liberal secular party. Bahaa el-Din, the one senior member of the interim government who has had the temerity to call for "reconciliation" with the Brotherhood, has been shouted down, and now claims to have been misunderstood. Nor, in all likelihood, will that democracy be very democratic, since the military rulers who seized control in the July 3 coup have virtually eliminated press freedom — the English-language Egyptian press which I read carries only the most barely factual accounts of controversial issues — and are planning to promulgate a law which gives the Interior Ministry the right to approve of demonstrations in advance, and to cancel or relocate them.

To assert, as Kerry did, that "we need to keep faith with the roadmap and the path ahead to continue the march to democracy" is thus an absurdity. The path Egypt is on is one of military rule with a civilian façade — Pakistan, circa 2007 — while embittered supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood seethe. That is a formula for instability, if not chaos. Kerry tried to change the subject by focusing on Egypt’s crucial "economic choices," but the country’s leaders won’t have to make those choices — so long as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE are prepared to funnel billions of dollars into the treasury. It seems incredible to say so, but right now Egypt looks less likely than either Yemen or Libya to make a transition towards a more liberal and democratic form of government than it had before. Contending groups in both of those countries, and in Tunisia as well, have begun a process of reconciliation, or at least begun to talk about it. In Egypt, the very word is treasonable.

From a strictly aesthetic point of view, it would thus be preferable for Obama administration officials to discard disingenuousness in favor of the full Saudi: "It’s up to Egypt to make its own decisions," etc. After all, the United States needs to stay on Egypt’s good side in order to ensure immediate access to the Suez Canal, calm relations with Israel and so forth. And there’s no reason to believe that Washington has any leverage with Cairo right now. Obama’s decision to halt the delivery of those fighter planes, tanks, helicopters, and missiles — baubles to which Egypt’s military is addicted — simply bounced off the hide of the generals now calling the shots in Cairo. (Egypt’s foreign minister has spoken of turning to Russia for arms.) If Egypt has become — once again — an autocratic ally, why should Washington bother to pretend otherwise?

The answer is that Egypt is not Saudi Arabia: a people who have earned their freedom in the streets will not continue to passively accept the new military dispensation, especially once the bogeyman of the Brotherhood has lost some of its scare value. The Napoleonic aura of coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will fade, especially if he becomes president and is thus held responsible for the failures of government. If Egyptians take to the streets again to protest against their government, and are once again mowed down by Army bullets or thrown into jail for chanting in Tahrir, they will be looking to the U.S. for support, as they did in 2011. For that reason, it would be a terrible mistake for Washington to cut off all aid to Egypt and to declare the country a lost cause. In fact, the Obama administration should increase targeted economic assistance, whether or not it reduces military aid. But precisely because there is reason to hope for a better future, the United States should hold Egypt to the democratic values of the revolution — even at a moment when so many Egyptians have lost sight of them.

Diplomacy is not, of course, about saying what is in your heart; it’s about saying whatev
er is most likely to produce the outcome you seek. Right now, nothing America says or does, positive or negative, will do much to produce the outcome it seeks in Egypt. That being so, "mutual respect," to use another expression from Obama’s 2009 speech, should dictate greater honesty about Egypt’s failures.  

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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