What to do about Egypt?

August 12, 2013

Editor’s note:  WOTR is happy to feature this guest contribution by Andrew Engel, who has been an unlikely participant-observer in Middle East tumult.  


Once ostensibly on the path to democracy, revolution-riven Egypt poses a unique challenge to the United States. The transition to democracy is in question, the country is spiraling into deeper anti-American animosity, and President Barack Obama’s administration has found itself caught between opposing protests in Tahrir and at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. While it is true that the turmoil and resurgence of anti-Americanism – at levels unseen since the beginning of the Second Iraq War – has roots largely out of American control, the Obama administration’s own missteps in Egypt have exacerbated U.S.-Egyptian relations, damaged the democratic process, and call into question U.S. strategy not only in Egypt, but the in Middle East and North Africa.

The Muslim Brotherhood, SCAF, and Anti-Americanism: More than Obama

In many ways the tumult in Egypt and xenophobic sentiment has little to do with what U.S. policy actually is, and more to do with internal forces roiling the country. Nonetheless, recent policy missteps have inflamed stakeholders in the Egyptian political arena. Mubarak loyalists resentful of Obama, liberals who believe the U.S. has sided with the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood sensing U.S. support for the military, and the military riding a populist wave, are all factors in this resurgent anti-Americanism.

To any outside observer such as myself, in Egypt on a summer language grant from Georgetown University, Tahrir provides a glimpse into how the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the Brotherhood, the Tamarud protest movement, and a number of liberal parties rely on anti-Americanism to bolster their legitimacy among supporters and a fickle Egyptian street.

At the outset of the protests, demonstrators directed their anger against the Brotherhood, in line with the Tamarud movement’s goals. But in the wake of Morsi’s downfall, they turned their ire against the U.S. – and were sure to inform the American in their midst. The Tamarud movement and other liberal groups sought to propagate anti-Americanism on the ground, accusing the U.S. of “supporting terrorism,” i.e., the Brotherhood. Enthralled protesters spouted ad infinitum wild conspiracies.  A popular one holds that the Obama administration intended to use the Brotherhood to draw a new map of the Middle East, a modern day Sykes-Picot agreement of sorts.

One of the military’s first moves was to seize state television, and it’s no coincidence that public and private media has grown increasingly xenophobic. At Rabaa al-Adawiya, demonstrators condemned the U.S. for allegedly siding with the military takeover against the Brotherhood.

These forces –  the military and the Brotherhood, Tahrir and Rabaa al-Adawiya – have for over a half-century competed over the future of Egypt. The U.S. has courted the Brotherhood and nominally has deep relations with the Egyptian military, but has done a poor job managing its relations between the two. Since SCAF deposed President Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. has been little more than a bystander to events out of its control.

New actors representing old forces are perpetuating this power struggle. Consider how Morsi’s ousting could mirror the Free Officers deposing King Farouk in 1952 due to increasing dissatisfaction across Egypt. Within a couple years of Farouk’s toppling, Gamal Abdul Nasser set up a politicized military command to rule the country (and aligned Egypt with USSR). This legacy that would last until popular protests again forced the military to depose another unpopular leader (one of their own), Hosni Mubarak. Again, the military assumed control of the post-overthrow period.

Consider also how SCAF’s cooperation with the Brotherhood – from the January 2012 parliamentary elections, to the June 2012 presidential election of Morsi and his ousting – could echo relations between the two before and after Farouk. The Brotherhood and Free Officers flirted briefly, sensing opportunity in one another, only for relations to sour and Nasser to crush the group after a purported attempted assassination in 1954.

Today, the military may once again force the group underground after the head of the Egypt’s armed forces, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, asked the public for a mandate to “confront possible violence and terrorism.” Some now speculate whether General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt’s armed forces, is the new Nasser, and whether his popularity will turn into presidential ambitions.

True, these comparisons are imperfect, as are many historical analogies. After all, Morsi was Egypt’s first elected leader, and Nasser existed in an altogether different zeitgeist than al-Sisi. But posters for sale in Tahrir lump Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and al-Sisi together, a not-so-subtle line of succession. And like Farouk, Morsi exhibited anti-democratic tendencies and incompetence. Indeed, worse than Farouk, Morsi employed religious and sectarian demagoguery, acting on the impulses of an exclusivist organization, incapable of ruling for all Egyptians.

Then as now, internal tensions in Egyptian society have operated independent of the United States. Nonetheless, anti-Americanism has become an instrument for those in Egypt seeking, and wielding, power.

U.S. Missteps Display an Absence of Strategy

Anti-American incitement has been a constant in Egyptian society, even under Mubarak-run state television. Yet the difference is how the United States has managed, or rather failed to manage, its policies and perceptions towards Egypt. As a result, every misstep has given political actors fuel to feed the Egyptian street – not so figuratively speaking. These failures suggest an absence of a coherent strategy.

Obama’s insistence that Mubarak step down demonstrated a change in strategy from stability as a core U.S. interest in the Middle East, to accepting the popularly-expressed demand for change. But the Obama administration’s embrace of the Egyptian street did not last long. Stability as a primary U.S. interest crept back into U.S. foreign policy after Morsi’s election, leading many in Egypt to believe the U.S. was allied with the Brotherhood and not the democratic process, which Morsi repeatedly attempted to undermine.

The Obama administration, and more specifically U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, chose not to criticize the Brotherhood as Morsi increasingly acted with authoritarian tendencies. And Patterson’s eagerness to meet with Islamist figures such as non-elected senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders like the supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, and his deputy, Khariat al-Shater, gave Egyptians the impression that the U.S. had a stake in the Brotherhood’s success.

For skeptical Egyptians, the final proof of this alliance came twelve days before the June 30 Tamarud protests, when Patterson cautioned that “some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical.” Patterson added, appearing to suggest a return to old policy, that “Egypt needs stability to get its economic house in order…”

The Obama administration is still uncertain how to approach Egypt, evident by Secretary of State John Kerry’s awkward fumbling of U.S. messaging on whether the military enacted a coup, or facilitated a revolution. Obama’s dispatch of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Egypt, both of whom have little credibility there, resulted in McCain contradicting the Obama administration by saying there was indeed a coup. McCain’s position has implications for U.S. aid to Egypt.

What’s Next?

Because anti-Americanism in Egypt is more of an internal phenomenon, eliminating it will be difficult. Rather, it would be more realistic to seek “normal,” or more tolerable, levels of antagonism. Perhaps the Obama administration can take comfort in the capriciousness of the Egyptian street: as quickly as anti-Americanism was ratcheted up, it could feasibly be toned down with time. Patience and a renewed focus on communicating U.S. positions to the Egyptian people are in order.

But passivity to anti-Americanism, or to historical forces such as the Brotherhood-military competition for power, cannot substitute for policy. Rarely do countries have a second chance in foreign policy, but the promotion of Patterson out of her post could be a good start. The U.S. must have a strategy beyond simply reacting to events as they occur. Stability as a U.S. policy should not be based in any single party or institution, but in a democratic process with the recognition that establishing a healthy democratic process will take years rather than months. as it did in Turkey following successive coups. U.S.-Egyptian relations may not improve under this administration, but Obama should lay the founding stones for better relations which will serve the next.


Andrew Engel is a master’s candidate in security studies at Georgetown University. He has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and was most recently in Egypt on a summer grant from the university. He works part-time as a consultant on Libya.


Photo Credit: Zeinab Mohamed