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US foreign policy on Egypt is a mess

Daniel R. DePetrisThe Christian Science Monitor

It seems that wherever you look in Egypt today, the United States is the object of scorn and derision. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that once controlled Egypt’s parliament and presidency, has come to view Washington as the hidden hand behind the Egyptian army’s intervention against Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi. Opponents of the ousted president, however, say the US was far too close to Morsi’s Islamist government for the year it was in power.

It is this prevalent anti-Americanism — and the desire to avoid pouring more fuel onto an already raging fire — that may have been the reason why the State Department’s number two official, William Burns, was careful in his words after meeting with the interim Egyptian government earlier this month.

“My message has been simple,” Burns said to a roomful of reporters after his consultations. “The United States remains deeply committed to Egypt’s democratic success and prosperity. We want a strong Egypt; an Egypt that is stable, democratic, inclusive and tolerant; an Egypt that addresses the needs of its people and respects the rights of all of its citizens. That is the Egypt that Egyptians deserve.”

It’s a message that the Obama administration has been trying to get across to Egyptians of every persuasion since its longtime strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was tossed overboard by the army after 18 days of mass protests in 2011. 

Yet in a country where the experiment with democracy has encountered a number of roadblocks over the past two years — and with Egyptians trying to get their democratic transition back on track after a chaotic year of Morsi's rule — the US is struggling to convince millions of Egyptians that it believes what it says.

Many Egyptians are in no mood to listen to outside voices, particularly from a country like the US, which some argue has contributed to the current political dysfunction. This is a realization that appears to include the Egyptian army, the most powerful institution in the country and one that continues to arrest those supportive of Brotherhood in the name of national security.

This list of those arrested or held by the army includes not only former President Morsi, but the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, who authorities say will be investigated for inciting violence against the military following Morsi’s overthrow.

In an illustration that Egypt’s new government does not take Washington’s words seriously, the Obama administration's calls to release Morsi from custody have gone unanswered. It is the clearest affirmation yet that it will be Egyptians, not Americans or Europeans, who determine the speed and depth of democracy promotion in Cairo.

Burns spoke loudly about the need for an inclusive, transparent and fair democratic process that is respected by all Egyptians: secularists, Islamists, young and old alike. At the moment, this is essentially the only concrete aspect of America’s policy toward Egypt. The other questions still open for debate include whether Morsi’s removal was a coup, whether Washington should cut off or suspend bilateral aid and whether or not support for democratic ideals should trump all else in Egypt.

The debate over American aid best summarizes the confusion about Washington’s policy on Egypt. Of all the issues on America’s political calendar, only Egypt can cut across party lines and bring together the hawkish Senator John McCain, the libertarian Rand Paul and the liberal Patrick Leahy. All three have argued that US financial support for Egypt should either be withheld entirely, or given in stages depending upon Egypt’s progress transitioning to democratic rule.

For the time being, Democrats and Republicans are all over the map on Egypt. The only thing today that can be said for sure is that the United States supports Egypt’s democratic process. That, however, does not say very much.

Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher at Wikistrat, Inc., an online consultancy for strategic analysis and forecasting, and an independent analyst.

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