A lot has been said about the real and imagined role of the United States in the recent events in Egypt. Most of this commentary is based on wild exaggerations regarding Washington’s intentions and its supposed capabilities. The Islamists and the liberals fundamentally disagree on many salient issues but they do agree on criticizing Washington’s “conspiracies,” while conveniently forgetting that in the past they sought its friendship and hoped that it would recognize their legitimacy. The Egyptian political discourse on the U.S. reveals in a stark fashion that various powerful groups, and the intellectuals, analysts and activists affiliated with them, draw sustenance from the same spring of conspiracies.
It is true that since the beginning of the U.S.-Egyptian alliance following the 1973 war, American policy towards Egypt was built on the almost unqualified support for the autocratic regimes of Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and avoiding criticism of their gross violations of human rights because they pursued policies that served U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
Support for Mursi?
The U.S. continued this policy after the popular uprising and military overthrow of the Mubarak regime in 2011. And despite their autocratic and at times violent practices, the military received only mild criticism from the Obama Administration. The U.S. welcomed the election of President Mohammed Mursi and deemed the process a democratic one, just as a significant number of Egyptians who voted for Mursi did, including those who subsequently, and correctly, rose up against Mursi’s power grab, when he put himself above the law and attempted to put state institution under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Unfortunately the U.S. avoided criticizing Mursi’s violations early on, and in fact appeared as if it were supporting his unpopular regime when U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson gave a speech in June in which she said she was “deeply skeptical” of the value of street demonstrations.
The U.S. has avoided labeling the overthrow of Mursi as a coup, and its pronouncements and actions show that it is dealing with Mursi’s removal (let’s call it a coup buttressed by popular support) as a fait accompli, while calling for an inclusive political process including the MB; and yet the liberals don’t believe any of that. Mahmoud Badr, the co-founder of the Tamarod movement rejected an invitation to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns because the U.S. “supports the Zionist entity” and “currently supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.” Others in this camp were peddling wild lies claiming the U.S. was planning to invade Egypt, worse still some even went as far as alleging that ambassador Patterson gave a green light to MB demonstrators to attack the Republican Guards headquarters.
For their part, MB leaders such as Mohamed El-Beltagi accuse the U.S. of supporting the military coup, and speakers at MB rallies rally against “Americans and Zionists” for supporting their enemies, the military and the liberals, even though the U.S. has called for the release of Mursi from detention and has urged the MB to engage the leaders of the new coalition. It is crucial at this critical juncture to be reminded of certain painful truths. The two most powerful forces in Egypt are the least democratic: the military, as its recent tenure shows, and the Islamists (both the MB and the Salafists). The third force; the liberal/secular/non-Islamist loose coalition is just that, a brittle, divided grouping that does not amount to a political movement. Other painful truths: America’s ability to radically influence events and forces in Egypt is limited, and Egypt’s regional and international importance has diminished considerably.
This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on July 18, 2013.
Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem