How has US policy toward Egypt changed in recent years?
Listening is partly irrelevant when Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the US government’s interests in Egypt, but Kerry’s statements in the months following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi can be used as a compass to understand US-Egyptian relations.
The US State Department and president, whose uncritical actions towards Egypt speak volumes, imply nothing has actually changed, and that the US’s ability to use soft power is diminishing.
For most of the month of July 2013, US State Department representatives came up with as many creative ways as possible to not call the military’s intervention in Egypt a coup, which was both amusing and painful to witness. This could be attributed in part to the sensitivity many Egyptians had towards the word, given its politicized character and the violence that followed. But it was mostly due to efforts by the US to legally maintain bilateral aid agreements, which heavily subsidize the American weapons industry. The US government never even considered calling it a coup. According to one well placed official, it was never even up for debate.
Around that time, Kerry said, “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment — so far.” According to Kerry, Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy” by deposing a president that had been in power for a year and was elected under more reasonably fair circumstances than either his predecessor or the current Egyptian head of state. Kerry then suggested that a violent crackdown by the military would be “absolutely unacceptable. It cannot happen.”
Less than a week after he said this, the Obama administration stated that officially the US did not have to determine whether a coup had taken place in Cairo.
Just over a week later, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the security establishment he commanded participated in the single largest massacre of a people by their government since Tiananmen Square. Human Rights Watch said the 817 deaths they documented might actually be higher than in Bejing in 1989.
Months later, in November 2013, Kerry went to Cairo and was photographed greeting generals on the tarmac of Cairo Airport. He argued that in Egypt, “the road map is being carried out to the best of our perception.” He put the temporary aid and weapons freeze down to a bothersome technicality under US law.
Since then, aid has been restructured and resumed. From the US government’s point of view, there is no alternative to Sisi, even if the economy is headed for collapse and epic levels of frustration build against human rights abuses. Kerry now stays away from the word “democracy” and sticks to discussing Egypt in terms of stability and security.
It would appear, then, we have come full circle from February 2002, when Ambassador David Welch claimed the US considers Egypt a friend and “we don’t put pressure on our friends.” Gone are the days when a secretary of state pressed Egypt to decorate the US’s failing policies, like Condoleezza Rice did in 2005 with Iraq. There has been a consistent disdain for labels. Mubarak was, after all, a leader Obama refused to call a “dictator” before his 2009 Cairo speech.
To be fair, the US State Department does issue statements of concern about the deteriorating situation of human rights and free speech, but this is not backed up with any action. More and more think tanks in Washington DC are starting to publicly disagree with the Obama administration and congress on the Middle East, but it is election season in America and should Hosni Mubarak’s family friend Hillary Clinton win the White House, these dissenters will be lined up for jobs, something they are very aware of.
So, has nothing really changed in US policy over the last 15 years?
Back in the 2000s, no one was under the illusion Mubarak ran an authoritarian state that had no intention of democratizing. Sisi has taken this concept to new levels. The situation is so dire and violent that the US’ only option is to hang on for dear life and hope Sisi outlasts the numerous challenges he faces. This is the same calculation Egypt’s generals and the elite, who still benefit from Egypt’s skewed system, have wagered on.
Of course, the US government might not have preferred military intervention in 2013. American officials did not want the Rabea massacre to take place, and wished elections after Morsi’s removal had looked more convincing. But when these events happened, the US establishment shrugged and made do with its men in Cairo, with civilians’ concerns for the situation on the ground in Egypt sidelined.
The US probably never had that much influence over Egypt’s affairs, but what little it may have had is gone, with the exception of the black-boxed Department of Defense.
In a photo opportunity from Sharm el-Sheikh in 2003, President George Bush drove a golf cart, Mubarak sat next to him and Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah sat in the back. In today’s version, the Saudis would be driving, the Egyptians cheering them on from the passenger seat, and the US in the back saying, “Where are we going? Are we there yet? I am not so sure about this. But count me in.”
This shift suggests the US’s power is waning, but there will be no dramatic break in US policy towards Egypt unless global relations are reconfigured. Until then, the golf cart of foreign relations will crawl along as we watch global leaders try to narrate this spectacle. After all, the golf cart is meant to distract us from all the violence that is required to maintain an outdated and untenable status quo.