The Cairo Conundrum
Egypt is the linchpin to America’s Middle East policy—a policy that must make interests reinforce ideals, rather than conflict with them.
In his June 4, 2009 speech at Cairo University, President Barack Obama dramatically raised expectations for U.S. policy in the Middle East, among Americans and Muslims both. “Whatever we think of the past,” Obama said, “We must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.” It was a historic address, as the President threatened to do precisely what many progressives had long hoped for: reorient American foreign policy away from the sometimes tragic mistakes of the past, whether the Iraq war or even the still-resonant 1953 coup in Iran. And it seemed only natural that Egypt, a land of great potential but deep social and political problems, would be Obama’s testing ground.
In Egypt and across the region, Americans reported receiving smiles and salutes, something that has a whiff of fantasy to those of us who lived in the Middle East during the Bush era. A range of politicians and activists from across the region lauded the speech. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, praised Obama for offering “a new vision of rapprochement,” while Jordanian analyst Fahd al-Khaytan spoke of a “historic change in U.S. political discourse.” Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel Committee that awarded the Peace Prize to Obama, has cited the President’s Cairo address as a major factor in the committee’s decision.
In the months since, however, the meaning of the address has become clouded by the realities of a region known for its stubborn resistance to change. With Afghanistan, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sucking most of Washington’s limited attention, Egypt has faded into the background.
But Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and still its pre-eminent cultural and intellectual center, is a bellwether for the region. American policy toward Cairo, its closest Arab ally and, since 1979, its second-largest recipient of foreign aid, has been in need of a facelift for some time. U.S.-Egypt relations have long been governed by an understanding that, in return for supporting American interests in the region, Washington would turn a blind eye to Egypt’s authoritarian practices. This bargain–interests in exchange for ideals–remained firm until the Bush Administration began to realize, in the aftermath of September 11, that the status quo was not as stable as originally thought. Support of Arab autocracies had boomeranged, producing a Middle East consumed by political violence and extremism. In her own Cairo speech, four years before Obama’s, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
In 2005, under the Bush Administration’s “freedom agenda,” Cairo experienced a short-lived “springtime” for reformers. It did not last long. The United States reversed course after Islamist parties did surprisingly well in elections across the region. Bush had memorably declared that “our vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Yet in practice, his actions suggested the opposite. With a deteriorating situation in Iraq and the specter of a nuclear Iran, ensuring the cooperation of the Egyptian regime took precedence over other concerns.
Just as it did under the previous administration, America’s relationship with Egypt both captures and magnifies the myriad contradictions of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It brings to a head the inescapable tensions that have long undermined its credibility in the region, tensions between ideals and interests, between America’s desire for democracy and its need for stability. Bringing coherence to that relationship is critical to promoting democracy to the Middle East.
Budgets Speak Louder than Words
In an effort to disassociate themselves from the Iraq war and the neoconservatism from which it sprung, progressives have also distanced themselves from democracy promotion in the Middle East. This has extended to the highest rungs of Democratic policymaking and most clearly been on display in Obama’s evolving policies toward Egypt. As early as March, the Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shukri happily noted that relations with the United States were improving because Washington was dropping its demands “for human rights, democracy, and religious and general freedoms.” Meanwhile, in her first trip to Cairo the same month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Egyptians that “conditionality is not our policy.”
More striking, however, are the drastic cuts in democracy assistance to Egypt contained in the Obama Administration’s 2010 budget request. The decrease of 60 percent (from $54 million to $20 million) from Bush’s final request is especially jarring in a year when democracy aid shot up for countries like Morocco and Yemen. As it turns out, Egypt, with a population of more than 80 million, received less democracy assistance than either the West Bank and Gaza or Lebanon, each with about 4 million people. According to the Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual budget analysis, only about 1 percent of total bilateral assistance to Egypt was earmarked for democracy and governance, and a sizable portion of even that 1 percent went to either GONGOs–government organized non-governmental organizations–or the Egyptian government itself.
Under the Obama Administration’s direction, the 2009 omnibus appropriations act included specific language limiting the amount of economic assistance that could be used for democracy and governance, the first time that such language has ever been used in legislation. Jordan is the only other Arab country to suffer significant cuts in democracy assistance. Overall funding was slashed by 23 percent, while funding for civil society fell 44 percent and 36 percent for good governance programs. On the other hand, non-democracy-related assistance to Jordan, through the Millennium Challenge Corporation–along with the Middle East Partnership Initiative, one of two Bush-era funding initiatives that the Obama Administration, to its credit, continues to support–is set to increase dramatically. Only democratic or democratizing countries are supposed to be eligible; Jordan, however, has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years, and its most recent parliamentary elections, held in November 2007, were its least free and fair since the resumption of parliamentary life in 1989.
It is no accident that Egypt, along with Jordan–the second-largest per-capita recipient of U.S. aid in the world–are the only two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel. They are seen as particularly vital to U.S. regional interests and, with Saudi Arabia, form a sort of “moderate” Sunni axis. This is the quid pro quo–often implicit but sometimes explicit–that has for decades animated America’s interaction with the region.
Succession and Stability
In August 2009, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Washington, D.C., for the first time in six years. For much of Bush’s presidency, an icy relationship had kept the Egyptian leader at bay. With Congress out of session and much of the city vacated, Mubarak’s visit had, in journalist Laura Rozen’s words, a “distinct under-the-radar quality.” At a joint press conference, Obama ran through a long list of topics the two discussed; notably missing were human rights and democracy. Perhaps this was just a matter of pragmatism, of deferring to reality rather than denying it. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, “You deal with the Egypt you have, not the one you want.” Which one, then, do we have?
Broadly speaking, Egypt can usually be counted on to support U.S. interests in the region, from ensuring passage through the Suez Canal to cooperation on counterterrorism. Considering the more than $60 billion in aid given to Egypt over the last 30 years–some of a more cynical bent may prefer “bribe”–this is perhaps the least that could be expected.
But the country’s internal situation inspires little confidence that such cooperation can be expanded. Egypt has that dispiriting look of a developing country in decline. Its infrastructure is, literally, crumbling, overwhelmed by one of the region’s fastest-growing populations. By my count, Cairo has at best five working traffic lights, and even those require–in the absence of respect for the government and its laws–a small army of policemen to enforce signal changes. On the other hand, the World Bank has applauded the current Egyptian government of autocrat-technocrats for its economic reforms, including privatization and deregulation initiatives. The result is impressive annual GDP growth of around 7 percent that has created a class of government-dependent multi-millionaires but failed to address disturbingly high unemployment and economic inequality. A still-bloated public sector subsidizes the country’s shrunken middle class, effectively precluding it from the role of democratic vanguard it played in Latin America and Europe.
But America’s interest in Egypt was never really about the success of economic reform. It was, and is, about its role of status-quo power in a region where the United States has consistently supported a status quo of uninterrupted oil production, a secure Israel, and a “stable” balance of power. Increasingly, however, Egypt’s ability to play its part has come into question. At 81, Mubarak is in declining health, and the long-speculated succession will continue to dominate the country’s politics. Mubarak’s son Gamal, a former investment banker and neo-liberal par excellence, will very likely follow his father, if possible through an orchestrated show of constitutionalism. In the past year alone, the younger Mubarak, head of the ruling National Democratic Party’s Policy Committee, has made two trips to Washington, despite having no formal government position.
Gamal is unpopular and, in a country that effectively remains a military dictatorship, lacks a military background. His ascension would likely provoke opposition in various quarters, not least among Egypt’s notoriously fractious but sometimes energetic opposition of leftists, liberals, and Islamists. The military may decide to get involved. Anticipating such difficulties, the last several years have been marked by an unprecedented crackdown on political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the nonviolent Islamist proto-party that, with 88 seats, forms the largest opposition bloc in parliament. Since 2006, the regime has worked to erase the Brotherhood from the political map, in what many consider the worst period of anti-Islamist repression since the so-called mihna, or inquisition, of the 1950s and ‘60s. Not content to rely solely on brute force, the Mubarak government–in what Amnesty International called “the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years”–passed 34 constitutional amendments that nullify political freedoms and grant the regime even more extensive powers to detain opponents. An amended Article 5, for example, bans any “political activity” on the basis of religion, allowing the government to arrest any Islamist at any time without due cause. In effect, the regime’s right to repress has been enshrined in the constitution.
Stability, legitimacy, and the question of democracy in Egypt are all intertwined. The less legitimate the current regime and its recent actions are perceived to be, the less likely the impending transition will be stable or even peaceful. This is why Egypt’s internal affairs–in particular the regime’s disregard for even the pretense of building any post-Mubarak consensus–are so important.
To be sure, there is much debate on the extent to which the Mubarak regime actually helps America on key regional concerns, such as countering Iranian influence or supporting the peace process. On the latter, its contributions are best described as modest. Egypt has done a better job of patrolling its border and stopping arms smuggling into Gaza, and it has mediated between both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Fatah and Hamas. But it has less to show in tangible results. That said, there is little doubt that Egypt plays an important role, even if more a function of perception than reality. Instability in Egypt–turning it inward–will imperil any increased role it still has the potential to play.
The Illusion of Peace
Egypt’s role, whether real or simply hoped for, is inextricably tied to Israel and the Palestinian territories, arguably the current administration’s overriding focus in the region. Obama’s appreciation of the centrality of the conflict suggests an understanding of Arab anger few of his predecessors possessed. He appears to have an intuitive grasp of the place of grievance in public life–consider his nuanced Philadelphia speech on race–and that grasp has been extended to the Muslim world.
Anti-American anger, and the violence and terror that can result, is fueled by long-standing grievances; as long as millions of Arabs and Muslims hold them, whether those grievances are legitimate is almost beside the point. For Americans, the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled a democratically elected leader in Iran in 1953 stands as an isolated incident. Yet for many who live in the region, the coup is one part of a broader narrative: that the United States has opposed, and at times actively undermined, nascent democratic movements in the Middle East. Too many Arabs and Muslims hold the inverse of America’s opinion of itself: It is not a force for good, or even a burdened, yet flawed, protector of the international system, but rather an actor that has worked, in remarkably consistent fashion, to suppress and subjugate the people of the region.
All of this is compounded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perception that America has unquestioningly aided Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians. There is little doubt that this perception at some level poisons nearly everything the United States does in the region. For this reason, among others, the Obama Administration decided to make the pursuit of peace a centerpiece of its Middle East policy. According to this approach, once the conflict is satisfactorily resolved, and the most important grievance removed from an otherwise long list, a truly refashioned relationship with the people of the Middle East will be possible. With lower levels of anti-Americanism and enhanced credibility, the United States will find it easier to tackle other problems.
These assumptions are not problematic in and of themselves. However, believing that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the missing piece may lead us to attribute greater importance to the peace process than is appropriate, and at the expense of other interests and ideals–particularly in Egypt.
The Paradox of Engagement
America needs–or thinks it needs–Egypt’s help on Israeli-Palestinian peace. And yet the more it needs Mubarak (or his son) to play a leadership role there, the more unwilling it will be to put pressure on his regime to democratize: This is the paradox of engagement.
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