Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

No constructive role

Ezzat Ibrahim writes on the failings of the US stance towards the current political turmoil in Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Obama administration will face a crucial test next weekend when Egyptian demonstrators flock into the streets to protest against the policies of the country’s first freely-elected President Mohamed Morsi.

For almost one year, US President Barack Obama’s administration has tried to build a strategic partnership with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, but it has failed to approach a very important element in Egyptian society in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution — the man in the Egyptian street.

The recent shuttle diplomacy of US Ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson reflects the dilemma of US policy towards the country. She has met political figures of all shades in attempts to defuse the crisis before the possible mass demonstrations slated for 30 June.

But the Tamarod campaign against Morsi and its main theme of mobilising Egyptian voters for early elections has taken Washington by surprise, since most US estimates of the Egyptian opposition did not predict a real attempt to topple the president before the end of his first year in power.

Last November, the first failure of US policy took place when the US embassy in Cairo, and some official circles in Washington, underestimated the protests against the constitutional declaration that aimed to give Morsi unprecedented powers.

However, the US administration still seems to accept the Muslim Brotherhood’s argument that the failures of Morsi’s presidency and the deterioration of the Egyptian economy are unfolding because of the counter-revolutionary practices of the old regime and the irresponsible liberal opposition, which has failed to get people to vote for it in referendums and elections.

The numbers of protesters in front of the presidential palace last December also proved to the American administration how misleading had been its calculations regarding the ability of the secular opposition to mobilise the general public. But the Brotherhood and Morsi still apparently managed to convince the White House that the opposition had its limits and that the results of the referendum on the new constitution were a victory for the president and the Islamists.

US official circles did not realise that the Brotherhood’s strongholds, or electoral bases, were in the countryside and suburbs outside Cairo and the country’s other big cities and that the popularity of Morsi and the Islamists has been diminishing over the past 12 months because of a lack of food and energy supplies and the mismanagement of public services.

There has also been the invasion of the country’s bureaucracy by hordes of inefficient members of the Brotherhood, leading to the so-called “Ikhwanisation” of the state. Nevertheless, the US ambassador in Cairo has been repeating that the United States supports the elected president and the choices of the Egyptian people, at the same time implicitly blaming the secular opposition for declining to dialogue with the regime.

However, with the escalation of the confrontation between the ruling Islamists and the opposition, the White House has become alarmed at a situation that might put US interests to the test over the next few months, and President Morsi’s mistakes may lead to his sacrificing steady US support either on Capitol Hill or in Congress, or within the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Egypt has failed to get a much-needed loan from the latter to stabilise its economy because of its lack of a credible reform programme and the inability of the government to implement the IMF’s conditions, which include increasing taxes and eliminating energy subsides.

Obama’s policy towards Egypt and the newly emerging democracies in the Middle East has also been under escalating criticism from the US Congress and think-tanks around Washington owing to what they see as its lack of a coherent vision and its taking steps to help Islamists in certain countries in the region, leading to the alleged empowerment of “extremists” across the region that could threaten US national interests and Israeli security.

“Egypt is in the political-economic equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It survives on handouts from Qatar, a US ally that unwisely supports the Muslim Brotherhood. The US should condition economic assistance from Washington and the IMF not on the imposition of austere reform policies (the strategy that was mistakenly adopted last year) but on a commitment to pluralism. The IMF should require that Morsi get all major Egyptian parties to endorse the aid package, which would foster the national unity that Egypt needs,” wrote US journalist David Ignatius in The Washington Post recently.

Last week, Patterson took the initiative to explain White House policy towards Egypt at a special event at the Ibn Khaldoun Research Centre, emphasising that US policy was to deal with the elected government in Egypt and to extend its hand to the Egyptian people too.

“Our policy remains what it always has been: the government of the United States of America supports Egypt, its people and its government. The US government, which represents the interests and desires of the American people, wants Egypt to succeed,” Patterson said.

The ambassador also defended extending the US outreach to the embattled regime. “The US government must deal with the Egyptian government. This is the government that you and your fellow citizens elected. Even if you voted for others, I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt. Throughout Egypt’s post-revolutionary series of elections, the United States took the position that we would work with whoever won elections that met international standards, and this is what we have done,” she said.

Patterson underlined the importance of dealing with the Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party. “Because many in the Egyptian government are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or its Freedom and Justice Party, the US government must work with them across a huge range of issues: commercial, cultural, political, agricultural, trade and consular immigration issues,” she said.

Within days of the speech, Patterson met Khairat Al-Shater, the strongman of the Brotherhood, in his office in Nasr City to discuss the 30 June demonstrations and the possible repercussions for both Morsi and the Brotherhood. The meeting has been criticised by members of Egypt’s different political parties and by the general public, since Al-Shatter does not have an official portfolio in the presidency or the government.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador has found it difficult to reach out to the secular opposition because of the lack of trust in her policies and the rejection of her justifications for the close relationship between the US administration and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The dilemma in Washington now is for the Obama administration to find a middle path in dealing with the political crisis in Egypt. It has been refraining from pushing the Muslim Brotherhood or the Egyptian presidency from making real concessions to the opposition, and at the same time it has abandoned earlier conditions for its support for the new government, especially regarding human rights and the rule of law.

Despite the poor record of Morsi’s government on many such aspects, the US administration has sought to extend its help without bringing real pressure for change. Even in the case of the verdicts against the foreign NGOs operating in Egypt, the US administration sought to contain the damage despite the rage in Congress.

The US’s popularity in Egypt seems to be going hand-in-hand with Morsi’s approval ratings. Overall support for Morsi once stood as high as 58 per cent, but now it is down to 28 per cent of Egyptians, according to James Zogby, the prominent Arab-American scholar, in a recent survey.

In another poll by the Pew Research Centre, just 16 per cent of Egyptians said they had a favourable view of the US, lower than the 27 per cent registered in 2009 shortly after President Obama took office and lower also than the 22 per cent who expressed a positive opinion of the US in 2008, former president George W. Bush’s final year in the White House.

In short, the US is pushing Morsi and the opposition to reach agreement on their crucial differences before next Sunday in order to avoid more complexity in its role in Egypt and the region. But the lack of a clear vision inside the White House is working against the country playing a more constructive role.

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