Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1161, (22 - 28 August 2013)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1161, (22 - 28 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The US needs Egypt

It is the US that needs Egypt and not the other way around, writes Ahmad Naguib Roushdy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The long-awaited crackdown by the Egyptian military-led government on the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed by millions of frustrated Egyptians, has put the US Obama administration into an unusually awkward position, probably unprecedented with regard to its relationship with Egypt since the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. 

United States financial aid to Egypt, which amounts to $1.5 billion a year, most of it going to the military, has been used by all American governments as a tool to bend the arms of the authoritarian rulers of Egypt if they did not do what they were told by the US. This included ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, who was, as the Western media call him, “the first freely elected president of Egypt,” even though he turned out to be just another tyrant like his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.

Morsi’s Brotherhood group has had a long relationship with the US since former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser outlawed the group in the 1950s. Recent events in Egypt have proved that the Obama administration now has few options in response to the actions taken by the Egyptian authorities against the Brotherhood, though these have caused the US government to review its policies towards Egypt and maybe also to the Middle East as a whole after the Arab uprisings.

US President Barack Obama’s plea to General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to change course and move rapidly to restore democracy was the wrong approach, and it was rightly unheeded by Al-Sisi, who is now defence minister and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This responded to the millions of Egyptians who demanded the resignation of Morsi, new elections and the restoration of democracy in June this year.

Before the current crackdown on the Brotherhood’s two sit-in encampments in Cairo, US republican senators pressed Obama to stop aid to Egypt if its government  failed to move rapidly towards democracy, including by releasing former president Morsi and other leaders of the Brotherhood. The reason given by senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was that the military’s action in removing Morsi was a “coup” that required the enforcement of a US law that mandated cancelling aid to any country where its military had taken over the government by a coup, as was the case in Egypt, they claimed.

The two senators visited Egypt early in August at Obama’s request. They pressed Al-Sisi to move as soon as possible to restore democracy and to release Morsi and other Brotherhood members who had been detained after Morsi was “ousted by the army coup”, as McCain is reported to have said.

However, this was not the real reason why Obama asked the two senators to go to Egypt. Fear of continuing instability in Egypt if he listened to the republicans’ demands to stop US aid to Egypt, would, in Obama’s judgment, have had a domino effect across the whole Middle East and might have had a ripple effect on the relationship between Egypt and Israel under the peace treaty of 1979 after the October 1973 War. As a result, he decided not to call the military action in Egypt a coup. But he also refrained from naming it a non-coup.

This cautious stand by Obama was supported by a statement from John Kerry, the US secretary of state, that extended a helping hand to the Egyptian military that could surely negate its action against Morsi being seen as a coup. Kerry said, as reported in the US media, that “the military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people” to prevent a state of chaos in the country, and “the military had been restoring democracy” when they deposed the country’s first-elected president. “The military did not take over, to the best of my judgment so far,” Kerry said. He made his statement while in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, which has itself endured four military coups since 1950. Undoubtedly, Kerry would not have volunteered to make this statement without prior approval from his boss, President Obama. Meanwhile, the statement satisfied the US legal requirement.

However, senator McCain made a fool of himself. While he demanded that Obama stop aid to Egypt because the Egyptian military had taken over the country by force, he contradicted himself when he said that “we share the democratic aspirations and the criticisms of the Morsi government that drove millions of Egyptians into the streets, but the circumstances of the former government’s president’s removal were a coup, and we cannot expect Egypt or any other country to abide by our laws if we do not abide by ours in the United States.”

McCain’s arrogance made him imagine that his country’s laws could be enforced beyond the territorial limits of the United States and in violation of international law. By this, he denied those millions of Egyptians the right to remove a president who had broken his promises and obligations under the Brotherhood’s own constitution to respect human rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech and of the press, and to maintain plurality in government and equality for all, all backbones of the US constitution. Instead, Morsi had run roughshod over his political opponents and put himself above the law. McCain made himself qualified to be a subject of the popular Egyptian saying, gah yikahalha amaha, meaning, “he tried to put kohl on the eyelid, but he blinded himself in the eye.”

The interim Egyptian government immediately rebuffed the two senators. The government spokesman said that senator McCain had falsified the facts and that his “foolish statements are unacceptable,’’ as reported by Al-Ahram. Did this blunt statement by the spokesman reveal the government’s readiness to refuse American aid in order to stop the US government from meddling in Egyptian politics? I would hope so, and since that aid is in any case mediocre in comparison to the aid given to Israel, and in comparison to the large Egyptian military budget, I would urge the Egyptian government to flatly refuse this aid, especially since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have extended $8.5 billion to Egypt in aid and loan facilities and Saudi Arabia has showed its readiness to make up for the loss of the United States aid. Saudi Arabia values the fact that its stability, and that of the Gulf States, emanates from Egypt’s stability, and it appreciates Egypt’s help before the oil boom.

US aid to Egypt serves mutual interests, and if Egypt needs the aid, the United States needs it too, possibly even more. McCain and the other hawks in his party should understand that cajoling Egypt to release Morsi, who was as tyrannical as Mubarak, and to restore democracy before securing the country from terrorism by the Brotherhood and other Islamists, including Al-Qaeda, which, as reported, has joined the Brotherhood in attacking civilians and government forces, could damage Egypt’s relationship with the United States and may drive Egypt to turn to Russia or China for assistance. This happened when the US administration pressured the World Bank to reject Egypt’s application for a loan to build the Aswan High Dam during the rule of Nasser, causing him to nationalise the Suez Canal Company and to turn to the Soviet Union for help. Nasser then later on adopted a socialist economic agenda.

After the crackdown by the Egyptian government on the Brotherhood, Obama found that he had to take some punitive measures against Egypt, however. He decided to postpone the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and to cancel this year’s US and Egyptian joint military exercises on Egyptian territory. This came as a surprise, considering the strong relationship between the Pentagon and the Egyptian military and US concerns about Egypt’s stability.

United States governments have always regarded Egypt’s stability as vital for the stability of the whole of the Middle East and for the continuing peaceful relationship with Israel. Once upon a time, Egypt was seen as one of the leading strategic powers in the world, especially in the Middle East, even during its occupation by the British after 1882. During the ancient Egyptian period, Egypt reached a military strength, economic development and level of technology unmatched by the few independent states in the world at the time and long before the beginning of the so-called Western world and certainly before the creation of the United States. Millennia-old antiquities reveal an advanced architectural technology. The building of the Great Pyramids and the art of embalming and mummifying have earned world-wide admiration and attract millions of tourists to Egypt every year. The same can be said about Egypt’s extended beaches and coast lines.

Cairo, the Egyptian capital, was and still is the epicentre of Arab culture, higher learning and politics, and the site of the first and largest Islamic university, Al-Azhar, built by the Muslim Fatimid Dynasty more than one thousand years ago. Egyptian teachers and professors later built the educational systems in the Arab countries. Many Egyptian members of the judiciary laid the foundations of modern legal systems in the Arab world. Abdel-Razak Al-Sanhouri, for example, a great Egyptian legal scholar and jurist and the former head of the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Egypt, was the father of Egypt’s civil law, wrote the civil codes of some of the Arab countries and was consulted by them on important issues. Even financial assistance was extended by Egypt to many of these countries before the oil boom.     

Emphatically, the United States needs Egypt more than Egypt needs the United States. Egypt’s strategic position has been vital to US and other countries’ interests. The Suez Canal provides a short path for oil-tankers from the Arabian Gulf and for raw materials and manufactured goods from Africa and Asia to Europe and the United States and vice versa, replacing the longer route around the Cape of the Good Hope in South Africa. Without the Canal, US third fleet naval vessels would not be able to reach their base in Bahrain. 

The special relationship between the Egyptian military and the US Pentagon has made Egypt allow American warplanes near automatic approval to cross its territory, to resupply the war efforts in Afghanistan, and/or to confront terrorism in the Middle East, while other countries, including close allies of the US, require up to a week’s notice before American warplanes are allowed to cross their airspace. The Pentagon should not forget that Egypt deployed 35,000 troops to Saudi Arabia in the First Gulf war against Iraq in 1991. When former president George W Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Turkey refused to allow American troops to use Turkish territory to cross into Iraq, but Egypt gave the Pentagon immediate access to aircraft battle groups through the Suez Canal. 

“We need them for the Suez Canal, we need them for the peace treaty with Israel, we need them for the over-flights, and we need them for the continued fight against violent extremists who are as much a threat to Egypt’s transition to democracy as they are to American interests,” said General James N Mattis, former head of the US military’s Central Command, as was recently reported by the New York Times. How much more can the United States need Egypt?

It is to be expected that any punitive action taken by the US against Egypt will restrain this relationship and may cause the Americans to lose a vital ally. This may be a lesson for the US to stop meddling in Egypt’s affairs.

It is very important to say that while the interim government is trying to save the country from terrorism by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist extremists, and to prepare the country for democracy, it should, at the same time, do its best to secure people’s homes and lives and government buildings from attacks by armed Brotherhood supporters. The government must make police and military personnel palpable in the streets and around government buildings. The lack of a military or police presence in the streets encouraged the Brotherhood to attack police stations and governorate headquarters, as happened when the Brotherhood recently burnt the building of the Giza governorate near Cairo and attacked churches and killed a number of Christian citizens in Cairo and other cities, such as in Minya in Upper Egypt.

The lack of security will extend the chaos in Egypt and make the government lose the people’s confidence in its capability to govern and to prepare the country to reach real democracy and improve the economy, all matters which could trigger a new uprising by citizens against the same military that responded to their demands to remove Morsi. It could even drive the country into civil war.


The writer is an international lawyer.

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