Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Kerry in Cairo

US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Cairo on Sunday in his first trip to Egypt since last spring, when Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi was in power.

Interim Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy tried to take some of the sting out of the partial cut-off of US aid to Egypt by underlining continued American support for health initiatives, entrepreneurship, border security and anti-terrorist measures and by saying that US-Egyptian relations are founded on more than an aid relationship. (Egypt doesn’t much need the American aid anyway at the moment. It is getting $4 bn from Saudi Arabia, $4 bn from Kuwait, and $8 bn from the United Arab Emirates to shore up its economy and foreign currency reserves, and to improve food import and storage– things that might help the post-Muslim Brotherhood government flourish and become popular. The Gulf Oil monarchies see the Brotherhood as a revolutionary, republican organization that threatens the Middle East status quo and might lead to the unseating of their rule. In contrast, US aid is now 1 bn a year, and would take 16 years to match this year’s contributions from the Gulf).

Kerry said he was assured by interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy that Egypt was following a road map to new elections and a restoration of democracy. While this is true formalistically, the substance turns out to be rather less than meets the eye. Likely, new elections will be conducted under a constitution and an electoral law concocted by the unelected praetorian-civilian elite, which will exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from participation. Since it is an old and well-established political and religious movement, disenfranchising it will inevitably cause trouble, and could push its rightwing fringes to terrorism. Muhammad Morsi, the deposed Muslim Brotherhood president, goes on trial on Monday, an unfortunate conjuncture for Kerry’s visit, which may seem to put his imprimatur on the trial.

Moreover, the new constitution will probably make explicit and enshrine military prerogatives. Not exactly a road map to democracy.

When he was last in Egypt, Kerry admonished Morsi to rule in a more inclusive way and more democratically. Morsi, from the right wing of the Egyptian religious Right, governed from a thin sliver of hard liners within his own movement, alienating even many of the more liberal Muslim Brotherhood youth. He had rammed through a non-consensual constitution rejected by the liberals, leftists, Coptic Christians, women, and even religious centrists. He staged a takeover of his cabinet and most provincial governor positions by Muslim Brotherhood hardliners, and moved to begin packing the judiciary with true believers. Morsi completely disregarded Kerry’s advice.

As a result, millions of Egyptians came into the streets on June 30 in the largest demonstrations in the country’s history, leading to Morsi’s overthrow in an odd combination of mass youth street movement (aided by labor unions, city quarters, workers in declining industries like tourism, and even nationalist peasants) and military coup.

The military coup part put the United States in a difficult position. Morsi had been the legitimately elected president. US foreign policy is replete with administrations that made their peace with military rule (e.g. Pinochet’s Chile), but Congress had passed a law requiring that the US cut off aid to countries where a military coup takes place. This law has not always been applied (Musharraf’s Pakistan), and wasn’t initially applied in Egypt, either.

The US was presented with an awkward choice. Kerry had made clear he did not approve of how Morsi ruled. But he could hardly support the high-handed removal of an elected president by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Moreover, Washington largely feels that it has been a good thing for the Muslim religious Right in the Greater Middle East to be drawn into parliamentary politics rather than turning to terrorism. That experiment in Egypt had crashed and burned, with the Brotherhood abruptly recategorized from legitimate civil party to terrorist group.

So after several months, this fall, Washington cut $300 mn out of its $1.3 bn aid package to Egypt, presumably as a faint protest against the country’s turn to praetorian rule. (The loudest protests against this step came not from Cairo but from the Israel lobbies in the US, who see US aid as a sweetener to ensure correct relations between Egypt and Israel).

The US has therefore become unpopular in Egypt. Partisans of the revolution against Morsi are furious that the US seems to consider it merely a coup d’etat by a military junta (to be fair, millions of Egyptians were part of the movement). The Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand suspects that Gen. al-Sisi would not dared have move without a US green light (they are over-estimating Washington’s actual moxie, as is typical of conspiracy theories on the street.)

Egypt is strategically crucial to the United States. The powerful Israel lobbies on the Hill are unhappy about the current rocky relations, because they are afraid Egyptian foreign policy will become more independent of Washington and will endanger the peace and cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv. Likely, even a return to a limited democracy, with relatively transparent elections, will be enough to restore good relations– even if the new system is flawed in excluding the Brotherhood and in enshrining military prerogatives. Stay tuned for an update in March 2014, after a new government is elected in Egypt.

7 Responses

  1. A new Egyptian draft law gives police power to ban all protests. The new system doesn’t just exclude the Brotherhood. It excludes anyone who wants to exercise their right to speak, assemble, or have a trial by their peers.

    The comedian Bassem Youssef represents the minority of Egytian secularists who are partial to liberty. He aired one program since the coup in which he made fun of the mania for the military. After that, it was reported that he was to be investigated by the military authorities. He taped another show that included ridicule of CBC, the station that airs his show. CBC pulled that program.

  2. The irony is stifling. Kerry represents a country where gerrymandering allows a minority of voters to control the Congress and legislatures in many states. Elections are bought and sold like bags of walnuts and he has the cojones to lecture the Egyptians about democracy.

  3. I have to admit as a student of Arab language and culture the coup as been pretty demoralizing. Seeing Arabs so quickly turn their backs on democracy and go groveling back to the old order while actively cheering on massacres, curfews and the abolition of their rights makes everything Netenyahu says about how Arabs just aren’t democracy material seem almost reasonable. How can you argue against Israeli violations of Arab rights when at home they actively seek out curfews, torture and suppression of human rights?

  4. “How can you argue against Israeli violations of Arab rights when at home they actively seek out curfews, torture and suppression of human rights?”

    You meant to say Israeli violation of Palestinian rights, I’m sure.

    So basically what you’re saying, one cannot argue with American violations of Mexican-American rights when in Mexico they are actively slaughtering each other, corrupting their institutions and disregarding any calls for democratic reforms.

  5. “The US has therefore become unpopular in Egypt.” Actually the US has been “unpopular” for a long time. During Morsi’s tenure both he and the opposition tried to discredit each other by claiming that their opponents were in league with the US (with imperialism and Zionism often thrown in for good measure). It’s a mug’s game, and if Obama/Kerry can manage an orderly political withdrawal from this rancid political environment, perhaps the better we’ll all be.

  6. This is an excellent piece, Professor, and a useful corrective to the one-dimensional pablum (in two distinct flavors!) that characterizes most commentary on Egypt. It’s clear you “know enough to know what you don’t know.”

    As a result, millions of Egyptians came into the streets on June 30 in the largest demonstrations in the country’s history, leading to Morsi’s overthrow in an odd combination of mass youth street movement (aided by labor unions, city quarters, workers in declining industries like tourism, and even nationalist peasants) and military coup.

    Not so very odd, if you consider that exactly the same thing happened in January/February 2011. Trivia question: who succeeded Hosni Mubarak as the Egyptian head of state?

    Answer: link to en.wikipedia.org

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