Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Editorial: Egypt, Sisi and the US elections

Al-Ahram Weekly

Competition is heating up early between nominees for the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets. Egypt, five years and four presidents down the line from the 25 January Revolution, remains a pivotal country in the Middle East, with many of its interests linking it with the US.

Chief among these interests are the continuation of US aid to Egypt, commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, and cooperation in fighting terrorism. All of these issues are high on the foreign policy agendas of the presidential candidates.

The Republican candidate who has drawn the largest share of media attention is Donald Trump, whose name surged in the headlines following his call for Muslims to be blocked from entering the US. This statement crowned his many other anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim remarks and led some to accuse him of fuelling Islamophobia in the West.

Despite such attitudes, Trump has commented quite frequently on the situation in Egypt and US policies toward Egypt during and after the 25 January Revolution. On Twitter he warned in 2011, “Egypt is turning into a hotbed of radical Islam. The current protest is another coup attempt. We should never have abandoned Mubarak.” In a later Tweet, in December 2012, he reiterated his criticism of Washington’s treatment of Mubarak: “Egypt is a total mess. We should have backed Mubarak instead of dropping him like a dog.”

Trump also criticised the Obama administration’s policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mohamed Morsi presidency, saying, “The Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt his making too many conditions before his visit to the White House. Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.” He also voiced his support for the 30 June 2013 demonstrations against Muslim Brotherhood rule: “Millions are demonstrating in Egypt for the overthrow of Morsi. When’s Obama going to call for Morsi to resign, like he did with Mubarak?”

Republican candidate Ted Cruz sees President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as a man of courage. “We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt’s President Al-Sisi did — a Muslim — when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world,” Cruz said. Cruz made the remark as part of his charge that Obama had shown weakness in dealing with Islamists and had not stated outright that they are extremist terrorists.

In November, the senator introduced a bill to Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, a step that a number of other countries have taken. Unlike Trump, however, Cruz held that Mubarak “was a leader who did not respect human rights, who trampled on free speech rights, who trampled on individual liberty in Egypt”. Nonetheless, he added Mubarak was also “a leader who had been a reliable ally to the United States and a reliable ally in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.”

Ben Carson, another Republican contender, shared the views of rivals Trump and Cruz on the Muslim Brotherhood. He, too, has called for legislation to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and was quoted by Time magazine as saying that this issue is a fundamental part of his campaign platform. Carson also called on the State Department to launch a full investigation into the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which he described as “an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a supporter of terrorism”. Carson also regarded the ouster of President Mubarak as “a mistake”, saying: “Mr Mubarak wasn’t nearly as bad as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.”

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton belongs to the pragmatist school of foreign policy, which primarily entails doing whatever it takes to advance the interests of one’s own country, and formulating policies accordingly. Clinton’s previous positions concerning the need to bolster US security and its priorities in the Middle East are consistent with this approach. In this framework, she has often referred to her personal fears and reservations concerning the political situation in Egypt. Most recently, she said: “I cautioned about a quick overthrow of Mubarak.”

Most Republican candidates have voiced highly favourable views of Al-Sisi, some lauding his call for the renewal of religious discourse and others, such as Republican congressman Louis Gohmert, expressing their wish for US leaders with Al-Sisi’s courage in fighting terrorism and his ability to express the will of the Egyptian people.

This was also the opinion of Republican nominee Jeb Bush who held that the confrontation against “Islamist extremism” was a task that should be borne by the Arab world. In like manner, Senator Mike Huckabee, who has just withdrawn from the presidential race, said: “Thank God for President Al-Sisi in Egypt.”

Republican nominee Marco Rubio, on the other hand, holds that promoting democratisation in Egypt should be among the priorities of US foreign policy. The senator submitted a bill to amend the law regulating US aid to Egypt in a manner that would require the “suspension and reform” of US military and economic support for Egypt by linking it to guarantees for democratic transformation, respect for political and economic rights, and the commitment of a portion of aid to supporting Egyptian civil society.

Rubio is the only prospective candidate who has held that respect for democracy and civil liberties should be a cornerstone of Egyptian-US cooperation, and not just the security of US interests in the region, fighting terrorism and the security of Israel.

It thus looks like Egypt is one of the trump cards in the US electoral campaigns. The Republicans are clearly trying to play it as a means to criticise the Democratic administration and blame it for the crises in the Middle East.

As for US aid to Egypt, it has been a pillar of the relationship with Washington since the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. In the wake of the ouster of Morsi, relations began to sour when Congress moved to suspend aid to Egypt on the grounds that the US needed to monitor the situation in Egypt.

Eventually, Congress and the US administration mended their policies toward Egypt and Washington released the aid payments and dispatched delayed shipments of F-16s and Apache helicopters. Relations between Cairo and Washington are now expected to improve further in the coming phase against the backdrop of the ongoing war against terrorism in the region, especially in Libya.

Developments since 30 June 2013, most notably Egypt’s reassertion of its independent will as epitomised by the diversification in its relations and growing rapprochements with Russia, China, France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and many sub-Saharan African countries, combined with ongoing Arab support for Cairo, will continue to have a profound impact on the nature of Egyptian-US ties.

Because of this, whichever candidate ultimately wins in the presidential polls later this year, she or he will need to bear clearly in mind that if Washington is to enhance its relationship with Egypt and its political leaders, it must respect Egypt’s sovereignty and the independence of its political will.

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