How to Lose Friends and Influence in the Middle East
The Obama administration's foreign policy line in Egypt has been nothing short of disastrous. While the Arab Spring began as a homegrown protest movement, with thousands of foreign citizens demanding very American values, the White House has continued to firmly side with Islamist parties instead of more moderate voices. The latest step is punishing Egypt's transitional military-led government through large cuts in U.S. aid.
The scene was one of tragic irony. As millions of Egyptians protested in Egypt's Tahrir Square last July, those holding anti-American signs were the young, educated, and normally Western-leaning, while bearded pro-Morsi supporters carried banners praising Obama's Egypt policy. Egypt's young politically active generation, religiously moderate and valuing greater political freedoms, should be the generation closest to the U.S. These are the young Egyptians that flocked to hear a recently inaugurated President Obama speak in Cairo in 2009. The fact that the opposite is true shows how backwards things have become.
Four years after Obama's famous 'speech to the Arab world,' Obama and America's credibility have taken a turn for the worse in Egypt. The current anti-Americanism among Egyptians is largely due to a failure to respond effectively to the Arab Spring. Few accurately predicted the scale and momentum of the phenomenon, where grassroots protests ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (the latter with a little help from the rest of the world) and destabilized authoritarian regimes to a greater or lesser extent in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Morocco.
Despite the suddenness of the Arab Spring, however, the movement held great potential for the U.S. to re-engage a region where anti-American sentiment has dominated for the past decade. After 8 years of attempting unsuccessfully to force our 'American values' on the Middle East in Iraq and Afghanistan, the entire region suddenly seemed to rise up demanding direct democracy, freedom of speech, and economic liberty. It was a neoconservative dream come true. But following the first Egyptian election, which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012, the Obama administration made a series of bad decisions.
How did we get here?
Shortly after Mohamed Morsi was declared President of Egypt on June 17th, 2012, it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood was taking Egypt in the wrong direction. Three months after he was sworn in, President Morsi issued a decree conferring himself with the power to bypass his country's judicial system and pass laws directly. He later came under fire for convicting NGO workers, including 19 Americans, of secretly working for the foreign governments and looking the other way when sectarian violence against Egyptian Christians occurred.
These troubling trends, combined with the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood refused to compromise with opposition parties and persistent political and economic instability, led millions to demand the end of Morsi's calamitous rule last July. One would think that the United States would welcome a popular uprising against an increasingly dictatorial Morsi. However, in words and deeds, the Obama administration has made clear that its support lies with the Muslim Brotherhood, and is now punishing Egypt for deposing Morsi.
Standing with the wrong side
The White House has continually supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood because of their legitimate victory in the 2012 Egyptian elections, which is understandable. While Morsi did hold democratic legitimacy in the technical sense, winning a slim 51.7% of votes, it would be a stretch to make him out to be a champion of democracy. A refusal to partake in discussions with political opponents and decreeing oneself the powers of a "Pharaoh" is hardly democratic, and Morsi was and is not someone deserving of blind American support.
Anger has especially been directed to U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, who discouraged street protests against the Morsi regime in June 2013 and met with senior Muslim Brotherhood officials during the country's 'second revolution'. Now, Patterson is in line for a promotion within the State Department.
The most recent development in American foreign policy towards Egypt is the gravest. President Obama has ordered a cut in aid for the Egyptian military to punish a government crackdown on extremist islamists. Although the prospect of paying less out to countries that hate us seems appealing to most Americans, the Egyptian military is all that is currently holding Egypt together, and to let it fall apart without U.S. aid money would most likely see Egypt fall both into chaos and outside our orbit of influence for the foreseeable future.
The risk that the military, which currently holds political power in Egypt, may never step aside for the emergence of a truly democratic state is real, but so far they have given us no reason to think this. The U.S. should give Egypt's new set of political players at least half the chance it gave the Muslim Brotherhood, which most knew were trouble from the start.
Aaron Kovac is an EU affairs analyst currently based in Brussels, Belgium.