America’s Egyptian conundrum

Egyptian leader General Sisi (left) and ousted President Morsi

Despite the Obama Administration’s fumblings in Egypt one can also feel a little sorry for them. On the one hand they did not like the idea of a Muslim Brotherhood government leading Egypt, and Morsi’s actions while he was in power only confirmed their fears. On the other hand the only way to get rid of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters was by a coup. True, the coup was supported by a huge proportion of the Egyptian population, although whether than number forms a majority is anybody’s guess in the absence of reliable polls or a proper democratic vote.

However, a coup remains an anti-democratic move, and as such is automatically subject to American sanctions according to US law. It’s not easy to decide whether the Administration was left with much legal room to maneuver.

The Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey explains to his Arab audience that the US has no choice but to cut aid if the violence is defined as a coup (via Israel Matzav):

Here is what the US cares about: for Egypt to be run by a ruler that can stabilize it, and will form a government that makes their relationship look good. The very contradictory reactions the US regarding Egypt comes from two reasons 1.) The lack of any real foreign policy regarding Egypt and the Arab spring for that matter, and 2.) The legal conundrum they are facing now because of us. US law dictates when a military removes a democratically elected leader that is considered a coup, and any aid going its way must be stopped. In reflection of the facts, yes, the military did technically remove Morsi and is now holding him in a location even we, the people who revolted against him, do not know (you do not have him held captive in your basement, do you?), so the situation is meeting the legal definition.

The US administration, which is required to uphold its laws, has no actual choice but to cut the aid, and in order to avoid doing so, it has done impressive political gymnastics in order not to call it that. Watching the new and impressive ways they use to avoid using the “C” word in its statements and press conferences has become my latest guilty pleasure. My favorite moment was when in a recent press conference, a State department spokesperson’s reply to the question if the US has determined whether or not what happened in Egypt is a coup was, “we have determined we don’t need to make a determination.” Read that sentence again. Admire its beauty. It’s glorious.

Read the rest of Sandmonkey’s column for an inspiring look at an Arab blogger who sees reality clearly and is not blinded by conspiracy theories or wishful thinking.

David P. Goldman in his Spengler column gives some background to this legal conundrum, as well as explaining where the US went wrong, in his article “America’s problems are just beginning”:

Such is the absurdity of both parties’ stance towards Egypt: the Egyptian military is doing America’s dirty work, suppressing a virulently anti-modern, anti-Semitic and anti-Western Islamist movement whose leader, Mohammed Morsi, famously referred to Israelis as “apes and pigs.” It did so with the enthusiastic support of tens of millions of Egyptians who rallied in the streets in support of the military. And the American mainstream reacted with an ideological knee jerk. America’s presence in the Middle East has imploded.


Among other things, the American response to the events in Egypt shows the utter pointlessness of American security guarantees in the present negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Authority. Even in the extremely unlikely event that Mohammed Abbas chose to make peace with Israel, he would face a high probability of civil war, just as Ireland’s independence leader Michael Collins did when he struck a deal with the British for an Irish “Free State” rather than a republic. Collins killed more Irishmen than the British did in the preceding independence struggle. I do not want to compare Abbas to Collins, and I do not think he has any intention of making peace with Israel. But American blundering in Egypt has closed out the option, for whoever makes peace with Israel will require a free hand with Iranian-backed rejectionists.


America’s credibility in the Middle East, thanks to the delusions of both parties, is broken, and it cannot be repaired within the time frame required to forestall the next stage of violence. Egypt’s military and its Saudi backers are aghast at American stupidity. Israel is frustrated by America’s inability to understand that Egypt’s military is committed to upholding the peace treaty with Israel while the Muslim Brotherhood wants war. Both Israel and the Gulf States observe the utter fecklessness of Washington’s efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The events of the past week have demonstrated that America’s allies in the Middle East from Israel to the Persian Gulf can trust no one in Washington — neither Barack Obama nor John McCain. Those of us in America who try to analyze events in the region will be the last to hear the news, and the value of our work will diminish over time.

In the New York Times article Democracy can wait, Charles Kupchan gives some hints on how the Americans should have treated the Egyptian crisis:

Across the Middle East, glimmerings of democracy are being snuffed out by political turmoil and violence.

That reality requires a sobering course correction in American policy. Rather than viewing the end of autocracy’s monopoly as a ripe moment to spread democracy in the region, Washington should downsize its ambition and work with transitional governments to establish the foundations of responsible, even if not democratic, rule.

Ever since the Egyptian military seized power last month, the United States government, backed by much of the country’s foreign policy elite, has demanded the restoration of democratic rule. President Obama instructed Egypt’s generals “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government.” The Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina visited Cairo to press the new government to restore democratic rule and have called for cutting off aid if it doesn’t.

But while Washington must unequivocally condemn the violence unleashed by the Egyptian military, clamoring for a rapid return to democracy is misguided.

[…] But the penchant for rushing transitional states to the ballot box often does more harm than good, producing dysfunctional and illiberal regimes. Egypt’s recently deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, may have been fairly elected, but he presided over the near collapse of the Egyptian state and ran roughshod over his political opponents.


More generally, Washington should back off from its zealous promotion of democracy in Egypt and the broader Middle East for three main reasons.

For starters, even if liberal democracies do tend to provide good governance at home and abroad, rapid transitions to democracy historically have had the opposite effect: disorder at home and instability beyond the countries’ borders.


The United States should do what it can to shepherd the arrival of liberal democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But the best way to do that is to go slow and help the region’s states build functioning and responsible governments. Democracy can wait.

Another NYT article, Ties with Egypt Army constrain Washington, describes the deep ties between the US and the Egyptian Army which complicates Washington’s reactions to the violence:

Most nations, including many close allies of the United States, require up to a week’s notice before American warplanes are allowed to cross their territory. Not Egypt, which offers near-automatic approval for military overflights, to resupply the war effort in Afghanistan or to carry out counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, Southwest Asia or the Horn of Africa.

Losing that route could significantly increase flight times to the region.

American warships are also allowed to cut to the front of the line through the Suez Canal in times of crisis, even when oil tankers are stacked up like cars on an interstate highway at rush hour. Without Egypt’s cooperation, military missions could take days longer.

Those are some of the largely invisible ways the Egyptian military has assisted the United States as it pursues its national security interests across the region — and why the generals now in charge in Cairo are not without their own leverage in dealing with Washington in the aftermath of President Obama’s condemnation Thursday of the military’s bloody crackdown on supporters of the former president, Mohamed Morsi.


For the Pentagon, which had earlier delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian Air Force, other steps might be more difficult.

“We need them for the Suez Canal, we need them for the peace treaty with Israel, we need them for the overflights, and we need them for the continued fight against violent extremists who are as much of a threat to Egypt’s transition to democracy as they are to American interests,” said Gen. James N. Mattis, who retired this year as head of the military’s Central Command.

While a cozy relationship with the Egyptian military might be preferable for American interests to a radicalized, hostile government in Cairo, there is also a threshold of violence — still unknown — that, if passed, would make it impossible for the Defense Department to continue its dealings there.

Slate Magazine takes an opposing view – that the Egyptians don’t care about America one way or the other, so the US might as well suspend its aid to Egypt:

Diplomacy is all about engaging in convenient fictions. The fictions that we tell one another to make the world run smoothly, though, should hold some promise of outcomes that aren’t pure fantasy.


In fact, there is nothing to suggest that Sisi cares one whit about what he hears from Washington, no matter how many times Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rings him. […]  Far from leading Egypt’s democratic transition, Sisi seems more intent on consolidating his control, crushing the Brotherhood, and when asked, thumbing his nose at the United States.


Of course, there is a good chance that suspending aid to Egypt’s generals would have no effect. After all, the sums that Gulf kingdoms like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have offered Egypt—upward of $12 billion in grants and loans—dwarfs American largesse. Or maybe a move to suspend aid would lead Sisi to rethink his position—to consider that perhaps his deep ties to the U.S. military are worth more than crushing his opponents in the street. But even if such an outcome is unlikely, it’d still signal to the region that the United States is not about to underwrite another Middle Eastern dictatorship—a mistake we continued to make for decades. And it’d be liberating for the Obama administration, too: They could begin to make policy for the Egypt that exists, not the one that they dream of.

I don’t think the author has thought through the implications of suspending aid – that such a move would only drive Egypt to further extremism and away from pro-Western alignment.

The Times of Israel has an article which describes how Obama is clogged up in the heart of the Arab world:

Obama claimed to support democracies, yet Mubarak’s Egypt remained a key US ally. The administration walked an increasingly difficult line between supporting democratic activism, and providing massive amounts of US aid for Mubarak’s regime, which was repressing such activism.

The same tensions continued after Mubarak’s downfall. A June 2013 congressional report noted that then-president Mohammed Morsi “may at times act undemocratically, be more confrontational toward Israel, and limit its cooperation with the United States on intelligence and terrorism-related issues.” At the same time, it noted that the US had multiple strategic interests in maintaining close ties with Egypt.


America, however, has not played the leverage card — at least not yet. The strategic relationship with Cairo has been deemed too important to imperil by cutting aid.


Despite complaints that Morsi’s policies were increasingly undemocratic, the June congressional report noted that for both the Obama Administration and the US military, there was a desire to engage Morsi’s government “on a host of issues, including immediate economic support and Sinai security.”

As the situation in Egypt deteriorated rapidly, with Morsi’s ouster at the start of July and a headlong plunge toward chaos, the administration struggled increasingly to chart its role, still refraining from utilizing its $1.5 billion worth of leverage. The complex reality in Egypt was quite a challenge to Obama’s worldview: How to grapple with the nondemocratic ouster of a president who had been busy expanding presidential powers to undermine the fledgling democratic process that had seen him elected?


Events on the ground — and on Capitol Hill — may ultimately force the administration’s hand. There are nearly one dozen bills in Congress that would provide a legal basis for stopping Egyptian aid, should the country fail to meet various political and security tests. More and more players in Washington are pushing Obama to declare Morsi’s ouster to be a coup, and that would mean an automatic suspension of aid.


Under heavy criticism at home, and facing the enmity of both sides on the ground in Cairo, Obama’s policy toward the “heart of the Arab world” is plainly being pushed in a direction that the president was reluctant to take.

The lesson to be learned here is that if the Americans had objected to Mubarak’s ouster in the first place and given him their backing, neither Egypt and America would be in the mess that they now find themselves in.

With the prevailing opinion in Israel, as expressed by Binyamin Eliezer, that General Sisi is preventing Egypt from turning into Iran, we had better hope that the Americans back the right horse this time.

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