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Egypt remains confused by White House policy

By Adel El-Adawy Conversations with senior Egyptian officials indicate that Washington should focus on preserving its strategically important geopolitical interests, not on using aid suspensions to influence the country’s domestic politics. There is consensus among Egypt’s political elite that no country could replace the strategic relationship with the United States. At the same time, the …

Adel El-Adawy
Adel El-Adawy

By Adel El-Adawy

Conversations with senior Egyptian officials indicate that Washington should focus on preserving its strategically important geopolitical interests, not on using aid suspensions to influence the country’s domestic politics.

There is consensus among Egypt’s political elite that no country could replace the strategic relationship with the United States. At the same time, the hallways of power in Egypt are filled with strong sentiment of disappointment towards the Obama White House. After being in Egypt for two weeks and having conducted numerous meetings with senior government officials and major political figures, it seems clear that Egypt’s government remains determined to maintain a strong relationship with Washington.

The recent simultaneous visit of both the Russian defence and foreign ministers to Cairo has raised many questions about the broader strategic significance of this move for the US-Egyptian relationship. Egyptian-Russian cooperation should not to be seen as a pivot away from Washington. Yet it should also not come as a surprise, especially after the White House decision to suspend major portions of military aid to Egypt during the government shutdown debacle, which naturally forced Egypt to broaden its security cooperation ties with other countries to preserve its basic national security priorities. If Obama’s decision intends to impact the course of domestic politics in Egypt, all senior Egyptian government officials made it clear he had made a huge miscalculation. There are mutual strategic justifications that guide the US-Egyptian security relationship, which the suspension of aid does not help move forward.

The Egyptian military has been entrenched in a critical and difficult fight in Sinai against major terrorist cells, which were allowed to establish a major stronghold there during the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. This reality directly jeopardised both Egyptian and Israeli national security and threatened regional stability.

In August, two buses carrying 25 Egyptian soldiers were ambushed by terrorists, and the soldiers were killed execution style. This reality should have dictated stronger support from Washington for the Egyptian military’s efforts to combat terrorism in the Sinai. However, the exact opposite happened when the White House decided to suspend military aid and the delivery of weapons, which included the weapon of choice, the Apache attack helicopters used in the fight against Sinai terrorists. Even if not all weapons are directly used in that fight, the suspension affects cooperation and trust between the two countries. Egypt’s political leadership is confused by the White House’s intentions.

The Obama administration has not specified criteria for the resumption of the military aid and seems to have purposely kept its policy vague. Different messages are communicated to the Egyptian government from the Pentagon and State Department on the one side, and the White House on the other. This is understandable after it was revealed that there are huge tensions between National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry concerning US policy towards Egypt. This kind of ambiguity only serves to undermine the strategic US-Egyptian relationship and jeopardise mutual interests at a time when the region faces great upheaval. The pillar of the relationship has always depended on military and security cooperation, and using this partnership as a bargaining chip to shape Egyptian domestic politics has been counterproductive and has only hurt mutual interests in the region.

If the rationale behind the Obama administration’s policy is based on the fact that it views the removal of Morsi as an undemocratic step, it is important to realise that the Brotherhood regime was not a democratic one in the first place. Morsi’s constitutional declaration in November of 2012, which granted him absolute powers and put him above the law, violated all principles of democracy. Washington ignored the violent crackdown that followed on protestors who opposed Morsi’s authoritarian powers. At that time, the Obama administration stood by silently — it did not preach to Morsi about democracy or suspend military aid to Egypt. The White House has taken contradictory positions over the past three years, sometimes putting principles above interests or vice versa; hence the confusion in Cairo.

For democracy to really flourish in Egypt, patience is key, as it will take time. But one thing is for sure: a close strategic security relationship between the United States and Egypt should not be hindered by dictates concerning domestic politics, especially nowadays when the majority of Egyptians are satisfied with the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Washington should not put itself in the driver’s seat as the main advocate for the future of the Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, as it will only put more tension on the US-Egyptian relationship. Washington’s policy toward Egypt ought to preserve its strategically important geopolitical interests and let Egyptians determine their own domestic political future.

Adel El-Adawy is a Next Generation Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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  • sam enslow

    Had President Obama wanted to support Morsi all he had to do was say, “Morsy is a bum. Egyptians should rid themselves of Morsy and The Brothers.” Egyptians would have declared Morsy the greatest leader since Ramses II. If he wanted to undercut General Sisi all he had to do was say, “General Sisi is a great new leader for Egypt.” Egyptians would be back in the streets. If America does something for Egypt, a nefarious motive is ascribed to the act. If America does nothing, it is abandoning Egypt. When Morsy was elected, Egyptians said the US would abandon Egypt because they elected the wrong person, an Islamist, “Look at how they branded Hamas a terrorist organization after it was elected by the people of Gaza.” It was only after the people of Egypt determined Morsy was no good that he became a “tool of the Americans.” On any issue affecting Egypt, one side will claim the other is a “tool of the Americans.” Egyptians think nothing of commenting on US internal affairs, but cry at the slightest comment made about the situation in Egypt by anyone. The US is in a no win situation in Egypt.
    If truth had any meaning in the discussions about US/Egypt relationships, Egyptians might well realize that the US has more real respect for the people of Egypt than most. America sees Egypt’s potential. We also saw the January Revolution that demanded, “No to theocratic rule and no to military rule.” It is true the US is unwilling to provide funds to pay for subsidies; however, it is willing to work with Egyptians to enable them to grow their economy so subsidies are not needed. Suggestions made by the US are not attempts to interfere with Egypt’s internal affairs. They are suggestions as to what is necessary to attract investments to Egypt that will create jobs and opportunities. But America can do nothing in Egypt until and unless the Egyptians want to make the changes necessary to prosper. Egyptians are a quite capable people, but they are not immune from the laws of business and economics. Many Egyptians prosper in America. They could not prosper in Egypt. Go to most any café in Egypt, and the people of Egypt have a very good idea of why what should be the richest country in the Middle East is so poor. The “powers that be” and those who benefit from “sweets” will resist the changes necessary to make Egypt prosperous.
    I have been surprised at how little Egyptians know about the American political system. Obama’s power in America is much less than Mubarak’s power in Egypt. He must build consensus among all parties prior to acting. He is not a dictator. The goal of Republicans is to thwart his every move. If he was a Republican, the Democrats would be doing the same. Obama must do what is possible – not just as he pleases. He made minor cuts to Egyptian aid (this aid is probably being processed covertly) for US political considerations. After General Sisi’s veiled threats against the US, I am frankly surprised the Congress did not cut all aid to Egypt. Threats do not work against America. Also, in America (as much as we complain about too much government interference), the government is not the main factor of society or for employment. The individual and private sector rules (note our Occupy Wall Street movement). The press is free. It doesn’t represent the government. In fact, it believes it has an obligation to be against the government. It’s job is to reveal America’s nasty little secrets. It is sometimes accurate and sometimes inaccurate. But America believes in the “free market place of ideas.” The people can judge what is true or not. We trust that bad ideas will be over taken by good ideas. Debate and self criticism are a part of American life. Our philosophy is pragmatism. Something works or it doesn’t. Change is welcome – not feared.
    If Egyptians have difficulty understanding the US. Think how difficult it is for America to understand the political situation in Egypt. Less than two years ago, Erdogan was hailed has a hero in Egypt. The press loved him. Egypt is still in transition. When it can and wants to come to the US and say, “We need… or we want help to do….” It will find help available as long as Egypt is willing to work with. Most US aid is not from the government. It comes from private foundations and individuals (Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, etc). Real US help from America will come in the form of investments. The money is there, but it will only come (like tourists) when it feels safe and welcome – and believes it can grow.
    No, America will not go around proclaiming, “The great Egyptian people…” We will treat the Egyptian people as a great people. We will not accept them acting as though they are not. That is wrong, we will accept them as they want to be. How much business we do with them depends on the Egyptians. Egypt can rebuild itself, with or without US help. If the US and Egypt are to work together both sides must be happy. It must be a win-win situation. There is an old saying that when friends fight, both sides are probably wrong.

    • Intellectualist

      The US political system is poisoned by Gulen’s money and that is the major driving force from which Morsi’s sympathy comes.

  • Reda Sobky

    The reason Egypt is confused about US policy is because the US is confused about its own policy with two camps one saying the US has invested too much in Morsi to give up on a “moderate” religionist alternative and another which says, enough, cut your losses, it was a bad deal and we were duped and see if you can make amends and move on. After the night of the 70 burning belfries and the two buses of recruits assassinated it would seem that the error of the US ways would be clear but false pride prevents it from happening. Remember that the US does not know how to admit error as there is no moral courage in this equation especially when so much has been invested and so much was expected, which, alas, did not materialize and the Egyptian people rose and gave a decisive no to the deposed. In the meantime the naked Turkish psychopath keeps giving them hope he can bring back the deposed by flashing four fingers, well Egypt is flashing back one finger and we know which one it is. These are truly the strangest of times, America in bed with religious fascists, how bad can it get before there is a breath of fresh air with a clean sweep of their past policies as presented by Ms Patterson, the goat of Cairo (metaphorically speaking).

    • Intellectualist

      I awoke early Saturday morning to a Gulenist front company attempting to install a giant $50,000 solar array on my front lawn blocking my driveway. Luckily I was home to issue a threat of injunction. Keep giving them the single digit salute. We’re winning.

  • Yves Bouligand

    The argument made here is that the US should be a consistent, well-behaved overlord by sticking strictly with what is our business – geopolitical advantage – and not bothering about things like brutal repression by the regimes we support.

    The issue in Egypt is not “domestic politics,”it is harsh violation of human rights, killing of protestors, and direct banning of democracy. “Patience” that consists in supporting such practices does nothing for democracy, as anyone knows. The columnist is right about one thing: it will definitely take a long time, especially with principles like these prevailing.

    • Reda Sobky

      Strange coming from the contra supporters, bay of pigs perpetrators, droppers of nuclear bombs and murders of innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the drone hits. Get a hold of yourself and look at how those who oppose your interests are treated. The US allied itself with the religious fascist and now it is reaping what it has sown, disdain and loss of clout in the middle east. There is nothing democratic about a phony constitution, a phony adoption thereof, followed by a phony election and a phony president. The thugs who would not leave the square got their just desserts and trying to describe them as protesters is delusional, witness the 70 burning belfries in one night. It must have been a coincidence that they all happened on the same night and these were the perpetrators that Patterson the goat of Cairo was legitimizing, now you doing the same.

      • Yves Bouligand

        I’m a little confused about who you’re writing to. You seem to be associating me with the entire U.S. and its history. I am interested in turning the tide of U.S. foreign policy away from things like the ones you mentioned. I would like to see the U.S. take a principled approach to foreign policy that is based on fairness and the welfare of all people, rather than following wherever power and economic advantage lead. An example of this would be to refuse to give support – especially military support – to governments that commit atrocities or violate human rights. If we had followed this policy in Indonesia, for example, it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

        You may say, things are not that bad with regards to the Egyptian government, and the U.S. should butt out of Egyptian politics. I can understand this. But one thing: the writer of this article says we should “let Egyptians determine their own domestic political future.” How is this possible with a government in power that imprisons its political opposition? U.S. money is supporting that government in doing this, and I would like to see it stop. I don’t see how such a principled approach would amount to legitimizing thugs.

        • Reda Sobky

          What you call the “opposition in Egypt that is being “thrown in jail” is and was an arm of Caliphate Central with 147 chapters of religious extremists bent on genocide and religious dictatorship by destroying the Egyptian state in a taliban like style. It is not a political opposition in the parliamentary sense but a group bent on hegemonic control over the society and subjugating it to its religiopolitical agenda. Replacing the state of Egypt with bands of militias engaged in ethnic cleansing (witness the night of the 70 burning belfries). Criminals and their conspiracies have to be stopped in any civilized culture especially when they are genocidal as happened all over Europe in the mid twentieth century and was threatened in Egypt. If the German army and the German people had stood up to the Nazi party after the night of the “crystals” a different history of Germany would have obtained. This is the proper context within which to interpret this situation and not in comparing these criminals to principled patriots who seek the welfare of their nation but differ in how to achieve it.

          • Yves Bouligand

            That is an illuminating response; I’m glad to have heard it.

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