Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The long good-bye

While Egyptian-US relations have marginally improved since 2015, after years of tension, the underlining approach of US pundits and analysts is at odds with Egypt’s reality, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The title of this article is borrowed from an American observer of the course of Egyptian-American relations some years prior to 11 February 2011, the day former President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power to save the country — including the army — from further destabilisation and insecurity.

Relations between Washington and Cairo are not as warm and cordial as they used to be, from 1979 to the end of the 1990s. I would argue that the “long goodbye” began with the administration of President George W Bush and the rise to power of the neoconservatives who aspired to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Egypt did not see eye to eye — and rightly so — with that new American agenda in the region. This agenda was flawed from the start and the consequences are everywhere to be seen around the Middle East. This shortsighted agenda made two major strategic miscalculations.

The first was, undeniably, the invasion of Iraq — what I prefer to qualify as the dismemberment of a major Arab power, a bulwark against any extraregional designs on what is called the eastern flank of the Arab world. The eastern flank is shattered. From the vantage point of the present situation in Iraq, no one can tell if Iraq will ever again be united for all Iraqis, regardless of creed, sect or ethnicity.

The second major strategic blunder was the absence of any vision or serious plan to reach a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian question. On the contrary, the administration of Bush deliberately marginalised Yasser Arafat and let the government of Ariel Sharon liquidate him slowly, until he died in a Paris hospital in October 2004.

The invasion of Iraq the year before, the death of the only Palestinian leader who could unite the Palestinians, futile attempts to impose an American-style democratic order, the well-orchestrated media campaign to vilify almost all Arab regimes, the funding of homegrown organisations to destabilise political regimes, including the Egyptian government, the absence of a serious peace plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict — all these factors contributed to a growing and persistent estrangement between Egypt and the United States.

With the Obama administration the story has been, more or less, the same but with policies and positions that have destabilised and almost destroyed the regional order in the Middle East.

Of course, speaking of the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, the Bush administration adopted the two-state solution in Palestine as well as the roadmap. The Quartet was set up to push for the implementation of the two-state solution. But after 13 years the result on the ground is nil, unfortunately.

It is true that when President Barack Obama came to power, he made it clear that American diplomacy would work with all parties concerned to carry out this vision of the State of Palestine and the State of Israel living side by side in internationally recognised boundaries. But President Obama will leave the White House in January after his two terms and this vision is still unfulfilled. The confluence of all the factors above has had a negative impact on the Egyptian-US “strategic relationship”.

Unquestionably, relations entered into rougher waters still with the June Revolution of 2013 and the coming to power, through democratic elections, of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. American reactions to the new political realities on the ground in Egypt after June 2013 defy reason.

For the first time in this so-called “strategic relationship”, American sanctions were imposed on Egypt. And guess which institution of the country was targeted. The army, the symbol for the majority of Egyptians of national dignity and honour. And when? When the country started facing a fierce terror campaign in northern Sinai, in the Nile valley, and on the western borders with Libya, especially after the Islamic State group began establishing a foothold there.

These sanctions were accompanied by the fiercest American media campaign against the new political order in Egypt. This order, by the way, is a democratic one, in the sense that it reflects the will of the Egyptian people.

Things changed for the better starting from the second half of 2015. Sanctions were suspended, but not lifted; official and congressional delegations have started visiting Cairo and meeting President Al-Sisi; and we discern more understanding on the part of some leading American officials and congressmen of the political dynamics within Egypt, and also in the Middle East after five years of disintegration of the nation-state in the heart of the Arab world (namely, Syria and Iraq). But the fact remains that overall American attitudes and policies are far from positive.

On 15 June 2016, the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to discuss the following item: “Egypt: Challenges and Opportunities for the United States.”

The witnesses were Ambassador Mark Green, president of the International Republican Institute; Mokhtar Awad, research fellow in the programme on extremism at the Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security of George Washington University; and Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.

What was said in the testimonies of the three witnesses on the internal situation in Egypt under President Al-Sisi, and their recommendations for how the United States should deal with Egypt in the future, makes one shudder. The view from Washington is not reassuring at all.

Ambassador Green and Ms Hawthorn recommended sanctions against Cairo related to two questions: namely, human rights and democracy. The two demanded the withdrawal of what is known as the “foreign funding case”, in which 43 members of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and other foreign organisations are defendants.

Ambassador Green called on President Al-Sisi to grant them an all-out pardon. He went as far as recommending diverting all, or at least some, of the sum of $700 million of unspent funds earmarked for assistance to Egypt to Tunisia.

Hawthorne went as far as recommending the withholding, “as allowed by the Fiscal Year 2016 Appropriations Law”, of 15 per cent of foreign military financing for the fiscal year 2016 due to what she termed “human rights violations”.

She called for redirecting these funds to emergency support for Egyptian human rights defenders — who are, according to her, under attack by the Egyptian government — through the Lifeline Fund and for scholarships for Egyptian students. She also recommended withholding special perks like excess defence articles until “improvements occur in Egyptian cooperation on end-use human rights monitoring”.

Ambassador Green requested from the subcommittee that United States democracy assistance not be subject to an Egyptian government veto. He pointed out that IRI programmes for Egyptians are still running, albeit offshore. While asking President Al-Sisi to grant a full pardon to all defendants in the foreign funding trial, he said that the programmes of the IRI “remain highly desired by Egyptian reformers”.

But who are these reformers? And how are they being nominated and selected? And who empowered them to speak on behalf of the Egyptian people? These are questions that some American officials do not like to hear, let alone answer. Did it ever occur to Ambassador Green to talk to the Egyptian government and agree on a joint training programme? Won’t that approach be better and more effective?

Both witnesses have questioned the security, political and economic policies of the Egyptian government. Ambassador Green spoke of what he termed the balance between rights and stability, saying, “The tension between rights and stability ... this committee has weighed in many different contexts”, and that this balance should be “considered carefully in the case of Egypt”.

He went on to say, “Counter-terrorism and military operations alone will never be a sufficient or successful response to the genuine extremist threats the country faces. To succeed, Egypt must also enlist the help of civil society.”

He vilified the government position vis-à-vis civil society, saying, in a very exaggerated tone, that the “crackdown on civil society in the name of stability is, in reality, a step in the opposite direction. In the long term, it will likely increase instability and tension, stifle constructive dissent and drive the desperately disaffected into the shadows.”

The most alarming point in his testimony is what follows. He said, “It is not hard to see parallels in today’s conditions to the sweeping sense of marginalisation and alienation that fuelled mass protests in 2011.” He failed to mention that the overall internal and regional situation today is completely different from what it was before 2011.

As far as Hawthorn is concerned, her narrative was not dissimilar from that of Ambassador Green. Hers was almost an end-of-times scenario as far as Egypt is concerned. “Egypt is headed in the wrong direction — politically, economically and security-wise,” she said.

“Egypt has become an extraordinarily repressive and intolerant security state, one that aims to stifle dissent, diminish civilians roles in governance and expand the role of security agencies, and turn a diverse citizenry into obedient, uniform subjects ... At present, there are more challenges than opportunities for the United States in Egypt.”

I personally believe that the opposite is true. There are more opportunities for the United States, not only within Egypt but also across the Middle East to reset American-Egyptian relations and find a more constructive American agenda for the region in collaboration with the governments in place. This agenda should not be limited to American visions and interests. To be more effective, enduring and mutually beneficial, it should be reflective of the aspirations and interests of Arab nations, including Palestine.

In other words, the next US administration should drop the neoconservative agenda of the Bush era.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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