Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Washington’s choice

US support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was based on the group’s popularity and capacity to ensure stability, a choice the US may be regretting, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the end of the transitional period in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ran Egypt, and the start of the post-revolutionary phase that saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, many assumed that America was lending its support to the Brotherhood, or was at least happy to see it win.

Why is that so?

During the 16 months in which SCAF was in power, it was clear that the US was watching closely the internal political situation and evaluating public support for various groups. The US, one assumes, came to the conclusion that the Muslim Brotherhood was the best organised and most popular group around, while the fledgling host of other liberal and democratic groups were still trying to find their bearings. The series of referendums and elections that followed only served to reinforce this position.

Aside from this initial US assessment of the political scene in the country, Washington was no doubt influenced by two previous experiences in the region: the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the rise of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) to power in Turkey in 2002.

In Iran, the shah was the most prominent ally of the US in the region. And the Americans, too complacent to appreciate the growing dissent in Iran, were caught unawares when Khomeini took over and started wreaking vengeance on the shah’s former ally, calling America the “Great Satan”.

Since then, the Americans have been watching Islamic opposition movements in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, like a hawk. Determined not to repeat the Iranian mistake, the US-maintained interest in the Brotherhood started under Hosni Mubarak, to a level that often strained relations between Washington and the former regime.

In Turkey, the rise of the JDP in 2002 also caught the US imagination. The JDP had its economic and social successes. It won several elections, insisted on joining the EU, and passed various laws to support its application. Such zeal on the part of an Islamic party to be accepted and integrated in the West was music to US ears. Since then, the Americans regarded the JDP as a possible model for other Islamic countries. Having an Islamic party at the helm, American politicians surmised, was not necessarily bad for US interests or for domestic stability. Turkey became a model of moderate Islam in a region threatened by extremists.

These two experiences, with Iran and Turkey, shaped Washington’s reaction to Egypt after the revolution, and influenced its perception of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Egypt’s political situation turned out to be more complex than the Americans had reckoned. As tensions grew in the Egyptian political scene, the US came under major criticism from various liberal and pro-democracy groups, who railed against what they considered to be US bias to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Consequently, most liberal and pro-democracy groups refused to meet Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, when they came to Cairo. US critics said that Washington was so enamoured by the Muslim Brotherhood that it failed to appreciate the extent of its encroachment on freedoms and human rights. Washington, many claimed, was ditching basic political principles just to stay on the good side of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were paying it back by taking care of its interests in Egypt and the region.

This is how US policy came to face a dilemma in Egypt, a dilemma that is of such magnitude that some observers now believe that the Americans are rethinking their former attitude, and that Washington is coming to the realisation that the Muslim Brotherhood is not as popular as it once seemed.

American politicians have not only begun to question the Brotherhood, but are holding off the economic aid they once promised it. Besides, Washington has so far refrained from inviting President Mohamed Morsi for a visit, clearly waiting to see how the next parliamentary elections in Egypt would turn out.

Other factors must also be taken into account, when assessing US policy towards Egypt. One is Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. The other is military cooperation, which the US sees as a mainstay of regional security. This is why the top brass in both countries kept exchanging visits throughout the past two years. And this is why the US administration was so determined to keep military aid to Egypt at its former level.

US interest in maintaining such ties, as well as the Egyptian army’s interest in continued cooperation, is likely to endure.


The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

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