US, Egyptian military, Islamists engage in precarious dance

When Anwar Sadat abandoned Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, he forged an alliance with the United States government and military that would shape his country’s foreign policy for decades. Since then, officials in Washington have depended on a reliable ally in Cairo to support American interests in the Middle East. As a part of the same deal, American and Egyptian armed forces have enjoyed a familiar relationship and cooperation.

But with former President Hosni Mubarak driven from office, the military holding power and Islamist movements dominating the ongoing parliamentary elections, Washington is struggling to develop a new policy in Egypt that will maintain as much of its influence in a rapidly evolving situation, with new political players.

In the interim, it seems that the US, Egypt’s military and its ascendant Islamist forces are engaging in a precarious dance. The US’s uncertain posture has some Egyptians worried about what will come next in its relationship with the Western power.

“I’ve never seen Americans so confused and worried as I have ever since January,” says Hisham Kassem, a liberal political analyst who is in regular contact with American officials. “I know that security and stability are American interests, not civil rights, in the coming period in Egypt."

American officials are saying otherwise, though, emphasizing Washington’s commitment to democracy in Egypt regardless of the elections' outcome.

“Now, in Egypt, new actors will be seated in the parliament, including representatives of Islamist parties,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on 6 December, a few days after it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was poised to dominate the coming parliament.

She also called for fair and inclusive elections, and said the United States expected those elected to uphold universal human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of religion, as well as maintain peaceful relations between Egypt and its neighbors.

On 11 December, US Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Cairo, where he met with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, newly appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri and high-level representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“You can tell whom the American government thinks is the most important from the people Kerry met with and in this order: Tantawi, Ganzouri, the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “No civil society groups, no liberals were included.”

“There’s a tension between broad principles and goals and who we’re being forced to work with,” says Steven Cook, a Washington-based fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The hope is that we’ll be able to secure our interests with a democratic Egypt.”  

That is precisely what has some Egyptians, like Kassem, worried. Americans “have both values and interests. When the two contradict, interests come first,” Kassem says, noting that when the revolution began in January, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "changed her position three times within 36 hours.”

Kassem and other secular forces worry that if the Brotherhood imposes restrictions on civil liberties — in areas such as women’s and minority rights — American officials will be happy to look the other way as long as the Islamist government cooperates on regional issues, like ensuring access to the Suez Canal and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Neither the Brotherhood nor the more conservative Salafis have yet taken power, but they appear to be on track, with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party receiving around 40 percent of the vote in the first round of People's Assembly elections and the Salafi-led Nour Party list capturing around a quarter. And although both parties have officially stated that they intend to respect civil rights, many secular Egyptians have doubts.

If the United States does ignore civil rights in favor of stability in Egypt, it would not be without precedent. Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, is ruled by a theocratic monarchy that oppresses religious minorities, places stringent restrictions on women and commits a host of other rights violations. Officials in Washington rarely speak out against Riyadh.

The Riyadh regime is reportedly influential in shaping the US's Egypt policy, with some observers close to the US administration alleging that Saudi Arabia is conditioning continued supply of oil to the West on Islamists being allowed to rise in the post-revolutionary democracies emerging in the Middle East.

In another twist, the American government runs the risk of voter alienation and Congressional opposition if it collaborates with an Islamist government in Cairo. Domestic resistance could influence the administration’s decisions, particularly if the elected powers in Egypt decide to reassess its peace treaty with Israel.

“It really depends on what kind of Islamist coalition it comes to be,” says Greg Aftandilian, a former State Department analyst on Egypt and an associate at the Middle East Center at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “If you have a coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood with liberal forces — that, I think, would be palatable to the United States.”

If a government too extreme for American tastes is elected, the US might decide to rely on its three-decade-long military relationship and continue to work with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

“There are long, deep ties,” says Aftandilian, between the two militaries. He adds that if the SCAF presides over successful parliamentary and presidential elections, and barring any gross instances of military violence, there will be no major changes to US policy in Egypt.

The Egyptian military has been long seen by its US counterpart as a reliable partner whenever the region becomes unstable. For years American soldiers and generals have met up with their Egyptian counterparts in the desert for extensive cooperative training exercises known as “Brightstar.” Egypt is also of great strategic importance: It shares a border with Israel, is centrally located in the Middle East, and has a deep-water harbor in Alexandria and the Suez Canal.

In addition, the US government has given the Egyptian military between US$1 and $3 billion a year since 1979.

But in light of the SCAF’s recent tactics used against protesters, including subjecting civilians to military trials, US military support is getting harder to justify. In October, military armed personnel carriers ran over protesters marching for Christians’ rights outside the Maspero state television building. And in November, military and police forces fired on protesters in and around Tahrir Square, and doused them with American-made tear gas.

“The last week of November was a clarifying moment for the [Obama] administration,” Cook says of the violence used by Interior Ministry forces against protesters, leaving at least 45 dead.

On 25 November, the White House released a statement saying, “The United States strongly believes that the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately.”

The statement was made quietly, released by the White House’s press department at 3 am, but the message was clear in urging the SCAF to step aside and allow the democratic transition to run its course.

Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University who has advised the White House in the past, believes that statement wasn’t meant for Egypt's protesters.

“It was directed at Tantawi,” he says.

Still, many experts doubt that there will be any rift or criticism between the two anytime soon, even though some lawmakers in the US Congress are raising questions about the SCAF's human rights record.

Most military experts believe the US will continue to aid the Egyptian military, using the closeness of the relationship to exert pressure behind the scenes.

“The US will not be outspoken because we have a discreet relationship with the military,” says Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC.

Instead, he says, the US will continue a close, behind-the-scenes relationship through which they can communicate and apply pressure to Egypt’s military leaders.

But to many Egyptians, this seems like the US is choosing the wrong side again, by not making civil rights a priority and relying on backchannels of communication.

“The US is betting on the return of the old [Mubarak-era] situation" in which it can exert great influence behind the scenes, says Abdel Tawab. “I think that’s the wrong bet.”

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