There is a country whose president went to Egypt early in his term to give a speech singing the praises of moving towards democracy in the Arab world. And a country whose secretary of state is a strong voice in condemning strictures on the unfolding of that process.
There is also a country that has invested in democracy-building organisations on the ground, in Cairo and beyond. And a country whose prominent technology firms took credit for having facilitated the toppling of Hosni Mubarak with their social media tools. That country, or so it seems, is invested lock, stock and barrel in the unfolding of democracy in Egypt.
But then there also is a country that has cast its entire lot in with the powers that be – a country whose foreign policy and military establishment has long made a point of training Egyptian officers as they rise through the ranks. That practice ensures close contact not just with the generals of the current leadership generation, but with the next one as well and the one after that. Nothing, in the Arab world, cements solid relations as much as cordial relations with the military. But this entente cordiale with the military is not just an exercise in fraternisation and the sharing of lofty goals.
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Egypt: The decline of American influence?
Material self-interest matters at least as much. To respond to that very human desire on the part of Egypt’s military, the big global power has, for decades, invested more than a couple of billion dollars per year. Those mighty dollars allowed the Egyptian military to have the kind of toys every soldier dreams of. Call it an earnest money deposit on the part of the big country.
The trouble, of course, is that the two countries pursuing those diametrically opposed strategies are actually one and the same country – the United States. Evidently, US strategists have learned something from the financial markets, for their bet seems to be a fully hedged position. That reality is never acknowledged, of course.
Whenever Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces makes another far-reaching announcement, dissolves parliament, nixes presidential or prime ministerial candidates, massages election results, or pre-shapes the new constitution, then Washington can easily go into huff-and-puff mode. This is not the way Egyptian authorities should act, it argues. They should let the budding democratic process run its course, it insists. Yes, it acknowledges, there will be hiccups and setbacks along the way, but it is important that, following the first real elections in the country, the Egyptian people learn to develop their own path, and so on. In one variation or another, US policy officials will arduously broadcast any variation of that message.
And then there is the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether as a result of decades-long disregard for the people and their needs or the self-centredness of the Mubarak regime and the military, there is a palpable desire among Egyptian voters now to give other forces than the establishment the run of the land. However, the Brotherhood may move without abandon towards the introduction of a full-blown Islamic state.
That would be a nightmare for Washington. For the past half-century, the entire US strategy regarding Egypt has been shaped by one overriding concern: creating a neighbourhood for Israel that is conducive to, and will not existentially threaten, Israel’s existence. That is certainly a legitimate goal. The trouble with that strategy, however, is that it has come at a price. The United States is not only perceived by most Egyptians as being Israel’s handmaiden, but is also viewed as having engaged in lots of unsavoury dealings with Egypt’s military and the Mubarak regime along the way.
Given that the Egyptian military, much like Pakistan’s, is not just a state within a state but a highly successful business enterprise with complex and highly lucrative dealings, it is understandable why most Egyptians, often desperately poor, despise this parallel state. A successful career in Egypt’s military usually ends up with a very lucrative position in the “private” sector, providing the recipients upon their retirement from the brass ranks with what, by Egyptian standards, are outlandish salaries. The price of admission is to have been a successful – and always pliable – military officer.
That entire parallel state structure was not just tolerated by the United States, but actively supported by it. This did not just happen via the likely deviation of funds transferred from the US federal budget to the Egyptian military. Money, after all, is fungible. No wonder, then, that the Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of currency with the population at large. This would be the case even without the tough economic and politically disorienting times that Egypt is currently embroiled in. The Brotherhood surely has its dark side as well, but – in the eyes of the Egyptian people – that doesn’t seem as glaring as how all those mini-pharaohs enrich themselves (ie: all those military officers turned business executives).
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Much of this “hedging” strategy was on full display during Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Egypt. She did the pro-democracy dance, knowing that US options were very well-hedged due to the SCAF running interference at the same time. The Council helps safeguard the US’ overriding interest, which is keeping the Brotherhood from becoming more powerful.
For that reason, current suspicions among democracy activists that the US government is colluding with the Brotherhood, and abandoning them, are ill-founded. Far more likely is that the United States has swiftly moved from a two-step dance, between the military and democracy activists, to a three-way dance that now also includes the Brotherhood. From the US perspective, that means it has all the bases covered.
The Obama administration is, in fact, aiming for a balance-of-power game within Egypt. In the ideal version, such a classic diplomatic strategy requires the establishment of a sense that the US is its best ally among all the contending domestic forces.
US intentions and strategies aside, the signs are ominous for Egypt’s future. The high military court casts itself not just as the patron saint of the country, but increasingly as a tough-minded, constitution-giving monarch that knows what is best for all the people living under its tutelage. It is hard to escape the realisation that the ways in which it seeks to avoid extremism are designed to attract tacit support from the US security establishment.
Meanwhile, the US officially maintains a stance of public indignation – and hence plausible deniability on all fronts. US strategists are quite happy to have a fully hedged position. The country acts both as a promoter of the democratisation process as well as a force behind the military’s unceasing efforts at bringing about the quasi-restoration of the previous regime, all the while giving the Brotherhood the sense of being very open to its efforts.
Stephan Richter is publisher and editor-in-chief of theglobalist.com and is president of the Globalist Research Center.