Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Why doesn’t Washington get it?

In seeing only threats to its interests, instead of the reality of events, the US was completely wrong-footed by 30 June, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

What bothers Washington most about the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, these days is the rapidity and fluidity of events. Over previous decades it built its policies towards this region on a number of seemingly immutable certitudes in the course of safeguarding its prime concerns: the arrival of Arab oil to its Western destinations and the security of Israel. One of its policies was to ally with Arab dictatorships and their supporters in the pursuit of these objectives. It was therefore wary of advocates of reformist visions with respect to government at home and decision-making abroad. Its fear that such movements would conflict with its interests drove it to do all in its power to eliminate them. An early instance of this occurred at the time of Gamal Abdel-Nasser who forged an anti-American axis opposed to US neo-colonialism and its support for Israel. The considerable gap between Egypt’s military and economic capacities and its foreign policy ambitions failed to keep the Nasser regime from falling into the US trap, which culminated in Egypt’s defeat in 1967.

Many saw president Anwar Al-Sadat as a true and loyal ally of the US, but the actual patterns of interaction belie this. Sadat’s reorientation away from the Soviet Union and toward the US was not to bow in allegiance to Washington, but rather to draw closer to it, so as to better be able to influence the mainstay of Israel, the occupier of a large chunk of Egyptian land that needed to be liberated. Washington only began to take Egypt seriously when it proved itself a force to be reckoned with in the 1973 October War. In spite of the US-sponsored Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978, Sadat was not a president cut to measure to Washington’s mentality and approach to the pursuit of its aims in the region. Firstly, Sadat had an independent foreign policy vision, and secondly, he was not a stereotypical leader, but rather a mastermind of surprises, such as the carefully staged plan to wage a limited war in 1973 and his visit to Israel several years later.

Former president Hosni Mubarak seemed closer to the American ideal for this part of the world in which the US sought leaderships that could be easily read and whose decisions could be fairly predictable. However, various developments that took place during the last decade of the Mubarak era ushered in a certain murkiness and occasional strains in Washington’s relationship with Cairo. The most salient were the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and, with respect to Egyptian domestic politics, the Gamal Mubarak hereditary succession scenario. It was during this period that the US began to wield the “democratic reform” card, as a means to pressure Cairo and, simultaneously, as a belated justification of its invasion of Iraq. The cynicism with which Washington paid lip service to democracy in order to advance its interests in the region was lost on very few. In all events, the US only began to recover from the enormous economic toll it sustained later, under Obama, who also began to phase out the processes of military intervention.

Still, before the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, scholars and researchers in US universities and think tanks began to speak of the “Arab exception” to democracy. Increasingly, they saw “political Islam” as the natural alternative to conventional regimes in the event that a democratic order could come into existence. But when the 25 January Revolution in 2011 succeeded in toppling the Mubarak regime, it sent shockwaves not just throughout Egypt but also through Washington. Here was a people who, by means of a peaceful grassroots uprising, managed to produce “regime change” in the space of 18 days, succeeding where the Americans had failed through economic and military means for more than a decade in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The “exception” had become a source of amazement and inspiration.

However, the revolution was not a single event, but rather a continuing process. This reality often eluded the American administration, which had given its vote of confidence to Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, on the basis of all the studies and analyses that pointed to it as the other side of the coin of the old regime with which the US had enjoyed a relative harmony. Therefore, when the elections ushered the Muslim Brothers into power, the US pitted its weight behind them, but not in the interest of promoting democratic transformation. Rather, the idea was to help the Muslim Brothers secure themselves in power so as to restore “stability”, even if that meant giving them Washington’s tacit blessing to their “democratic” domestic policies that were aimed at dismantling the Egyptian state so as to rebuild it again as another form of dictatorship. Washington must have thought that it would be killing two birds with one stone. It would bring back the conventional form of rule whose behaviour could be easily predicted, especially with respect to foreign policy matters in this region, which it safely felt would follow the lines of the previous regime. At the same time, it would be able to use the Muslim Brotherhood as a kind of shepherd’s stick to keep other Islamist groups — such as Hamas — in line so as to prevent them from jeopardising US and Israeli interests.

In light of the foregoing, one can better understand the US reaction towards the second wave of the Egyptian revolution on 30 June, which came as just as much — if not more — of a shock to it as the 25 January Revolution. If the 25 January Revolution had put paid to the notion of the “Arab exception” to democracy, the turnout of more than 17 million Egyptians to central squares in cities around the country, all calling in unison for the departure of Mohamed Morsi after his first year in power, put paid to another preconception. In January 2011, the Egyptian people signalled to the world that they had awoken and rejected dictatorial rule. On 30 June, they marched in even greater numbers to announce that they rejected Muslim Brotherhood rule and political Islam. Washington was dumbfounded, unable to fathom what had unfolded on the ground. It fell back on its conventional knee-jerk reaction, which was to see only its foreign policy interests without exerting the extra effort to understand that what was taking place in Egypt was truly a revolution with new and unconventional frameworks and modes of collective thought and political action.

At heart, the Egyptian people are applying in practical and tangible ways the principle that democracy is not just about the ballot box. When they voted for Morsi, it was not merely to exercise the right to vote, but to bring into power a government that would work to realise the aims of the revolution. The refrain, “The square is still there,” which was reiterated particularly by the revolutionaries who had felt that they had to vote for Morsi over Shafik, was meant to remind Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of their pledges towards the revolution. But to the Muslim Brotherhood and the US administration, the legitimacy of the revolution had ended and was superseded by the legitimacy of the ballot box, which the Muslim Brotherhood took as a carte blanche to do whatever was required to consolidate their hold on power.

The Tamarod petition campaign that succeeded in the space of a couple of months in gathering more than 22 million signatures calling for early presidential elections, and the unprecedentedly huge 30 June mass demonstrations that crowned it, have proved both the Muslim Brotherhood and the US administration wrong. The question remains as to whether Washington can change. Will it overcome the cognitive gap that makes it read events in the region solely in terms of its own interests, and in accordance with which it works against the flow on the ground?


The  writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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