When the young Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2011, US politicians and media failed to predict the scale of the incident’s repercussions even as the fireball was still rolling in the streets of Tunisia. Almost two years after the Bouazizi incident, the West is still concerned over the course of the Arab Spring and the new wave of democracy that has taken place following the ousting of long-time dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
As the political transitions unfold in these three countries, and a fierce civil war takes place in Syria, many politicians and scholars in the United States believe that Egypt and North Africa will go through more critical stages before reaching fully-fledged democracy and that it is inevitable that they will pass through a stage of the Islamists being in power that could last for sometime in the future. The US’s official policy has not been able to build new policies to deal with developments in the newly-fledged democracies, since there has been no new strategic directive to deal with the major changes in the region.
The recent constitutional crises in Tunisia and Egypt have proved that US policy is still haunted by the legacy of the past. Nathan J Brown, a leading American expert on Egypt, described the US dilemma by saying that “I think the impulse of most American administrations is to show up in an Arab country and say, ‘take me to your leader,’” in an interview with The New York Times.
“I don’t think we have many alternatives,” Brown said. “The United States is not in the position to back a military coup or the opposition.” However, the inability of the US administration to influence the course of history in the Middle East is not supported by the evidence, since Washington has worked hard for at least a couple of years to reshape regional politics and to build new partnership coalitions. The story of US policy towards Egypt, however, has been an indication of a “schizophrenic policy” in the US, as the White House, following the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, has wanted to gain more time before heading in any new direction.
In describing US policy, Scott Shane, another US expert, has put forward a framework for such a critical direction, which he says means the “defining policy quandary of the Arab Spring: how to square contradictory American impulses that include support for democratic change, a desire for stability and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent political force.”
These three imperatives have worked against each other over the last couple of years. Washington dealt with the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt by making sure that the transition to democracy and the outcomes of the parliamentary and presidential elections would not compromise US regional interests. US motives were to keep stability and to wait until the emergence of a key new player on the Egyptian political scene. A few months following the 25 January Revolution, the new US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Paterson, managed to take a new step by contacting the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, since the White House and State Department had come to the conclusion that the Islamists now had the upper hand in domestic politics and it was time to approach a new ally in the country.
The Brotherhood’s major position in the Arab and Muslim world played a role in promoting the idea of increasing US contacts with the group, and the political advancement of the Islamists in Tunisia and Libya supported the investment in Egypt’s Islamists. Yet, the Muslim Brothers received the message of the US administration in a way that has been a burden for the group and continues to be one today. According to inside information, Brotherhood officials expressed to US officials that the group was keen to fill the vacuum of power in the region through a new partnership with Washington, and in return the group would use its leverage over the Islamists in the Middle East to reduce animosity to US policies.
American officials reacted positively to the Brotherhood’s demands, and following the parliamentary elections in Egypt both sides came to the table with a mutual understanding on how to push their own interests forward in the post-revolutionary era. The Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) first delegation to Washington was accordingly described as the Brotherhood’s “charm offensive”, meant to enhance the group’s image in the United States. The range of issues and meetings that were then engaged in sent a clear message to the Brotherhood, and to its opponents in Egypt and the US, that Washington was opening a new chapter with the Islamists and putting an end to the exclusive use of back channels to the group.
Such moves were confirmed later, when Mohamed Morsi, the FJP’s candidate in the presidential elections, won the elections and so-called US pressure on the SCAF was enough to have him declared victorious over Ahmed Shafik, the other candidate in the second round of the elections and a symbol of the old regime.
Analysing US President Barack Obama’s policy at the time, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and head of the foreign policy unit at the Brookings Institution, stated that “his administration is certainly engaged in a determined effort, from coaching the SCAF to engaging the Muslim Brotherhood and providing economic assistance that can help generate jobs.” Indyk also echoed the dilemma of US policy in the new era: “it is a gamble. Suddenly, standing on the right side of history means accepting that the cornerstone of America’s strategic position in the Arab world will likely be in the hands of democratically elected Islamist religious parties that are at their core opposed to liberalism, secularism, and Zionism.”
However, the newly elected Egyptian president meant to send a clear message to the Americans so as to avoid a backlash in Egypt’s relationship with the US. The US promised to back Morsi’s economic reform plans either through US annual assistance or by supporting the Egyptian government’s requests to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet, more than one incident put the nascent relationship between the US administration and the new regime in Cairo to the test. One such was the reluctance of Egyptian security to safeguard the US embassy in Cairo following the anti-Islam movie that appeared some months ago. The White House and Congress puzzled over the fact that Morsi had failed to condemn the attack for a few days. But the Egyptian presidency managed to address US concerns through close cooperation on security issues relating to the killing of the US ambassador to Libya.
The second litmus-test was the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, when the White House betted on the relationship between the Brotherhood and Hamas to stop the missiles and to reach a permanent ceasefire. The Brotherhood accordingly emerged as a major regional partner to Washington following the ceasefire. Morsi got the approval of the US media, but the following day, after reaching the truce agreement in Cairo, he increased his powers and again Washington found itself facing a hazardous situation in Egypt where any prediction of the course of events was impossible.
In fact, there was genuine tension in the relationship between Washington and the Islamists because of the lack of a clear vision of how the latter would deal with US interests in the region and the inability of the Islamists to build bridges with important groups in American society, i.e. a large segment of Congress and the powerful Israeli lobby. The position of the Brotherhood, and of the other Islamists who have come to power, on Israel is considered to be one of the most pressing issues in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The US administration will eventually have to face the reality that there are no high-level contacts between the Egyptian president and Israel. During the Gaza confrontation, Morsi delegated Egyptian intelligence to negotiate the truce without directly becoming involved in the discussions. Following the latest developments, some senior scholars and journalists in the US have accused the US administration of abandoning liberal and moderate voices in Egypt and the broader Arab world, despite the fact that these forces share the same democratic values and liberal ideals with the US.
Despite the fact that US politicians have given some of the Islamists credit for their popular appeal and their ability to conduct rational dialogue with their Western counterparts, the internal divisions in the Arab Spring countries and the growing confrontation between the Islamists and the liberals have put the US political elite in a real dilemma as to whether to support the Islamists, who usually do well in elections, or to line up in support of the civic forces in their march to build an alternative to the Islamists.
The rise of the Islamists to power in the Middle East following the uprisings has meant a major strategic challenge for US decision-makers since there is no real alternative to them. US commentators have accordingly blasted the White House for sacrificing principles to pragmatism. In the middle of the Egyptian constitutional crisis, David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, said the US could “help the Arab world through this turmoil if it states clearly that US policy is guided by its interests and values, not by transient alliances and friendships. If Morsi wants to be treated as a democratic leader, he will have to act like one.”
Other insiders in Washington think that the US does not have the luxury to set conditions in its relations with the Islamists, given the situation in the Middle East and the need for the major political players to coordinate in the current crisis. For example, the civil war in Syria and the role of Iran have imposed a specific set of rules of the game. The US needs the major Sunni powers, among them the Islamists in Egypt, to help decide the future of Syria after the fall of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The Gulf states, except Qatar, are not happy with the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood playing a role in any future settlement, and thus the conflict has lingered until the powers and parties concerned are able to reach a deal.
One of the concerns in Washington is that the Islamists could gain much more power if the conflict leads to the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s off-shoot in Damascus following the fall of the Al-Assad regime. It could thus eventually decide the nature of the future relationships between the world’s sole superpower and the post-revolutionary regimes across North Africa and the Middle East. On the other hand, the absence of a counter-force to the Islamists is adding to the strategic dilemma faced by American policy towards Egypt and other fledging democracies because building a relationship based on one dominant ruling party may end up with a pattern of partnership that is close to Washington’s relationship with the old regime.
Some US politicians are crying wolf about the lack of unity among liberals in Egypt and other countries. Recently, a US diplomat told the Weekly that “we are calling liberals to get one platform and one message to be able to compete against the Islamists. It is not impossible to do so.” US politicians understand that the unity of the Islamists is one of the reasons for their strong performance in the elections and referenda that have taken place over the past two years. Egypt’s political scene, according to the US diplomat, will not change much over the coming years unless the liberal parties realise their mistakes over the past 20 months and act on them.
The Arab Spring’s lessons for US policymakers have not been fully realised yet. The unfolding events in the Arab Middle East put constraints and liabilities on shaping US policy towards the region, but policymakers are tempted to reproduce the old-fashioned policy of dealing with a president and a ruling party with absolute powers that might lead to a new dictatorship in a pivotal country for American interests. That is exactly the fate of the US’s Egypt policy that many in Washington hope to avoid.
A few months following the beginning of the Arab Spring, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, asked her assistants to stop using the phrase “Arab Spring” and instead to use the term “Arab Awakening” because in her view it better described developments in the region. Yet, a few weeks before Clinton leaves office, it seems that winter is coming early to the Arab countries in transition, carrying grief and dismay with it.