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Egypt after Mubarak

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Egypt’s Enduring Challenges as it Faces the United States

July 18th 2011

Presidential - bush and mubarak
Former Presidents Hosni Mubarak, George W Bush

The U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship developed rapidly following the 1978 Camp David Accords. While the ties spanned many fields, the foundation of the contact was the military relationship. As a memo from the U.S. embassy in Cairo explained in 2009:

President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF [foreign military financing] as “untouchable compensation” for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.

As the U.S. embassy in Egypt notes, the relationship has been beneficial for both Washington and Cairo for decades. In addition to the benefits just mentioned, in the early 1990s the Egyptian military participated in the campaign to expel Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. In return, Washington canceled nearly $7 billion in Egypt’s outstanding military debt. Moreover, American and Egyptian forces engage in annual joint exercises in the Sinai Peninsula, and Cairo coproduces U.S. tanks in Egypt. At the end of the day, though, U.S. financial assistance is the glue solidifying the productive ties. The $1.3 billion in annual U.S. funding accounts for a reported 80 percent of all procurement in the Egyptian military.

The sailing, however, has not always been smooth. During the George W. Bush administration, relations between Washington and Cairo hit a rough patch. After 9/11, the Bush administration wanted to see its ally in Cairo move decisively to address deeply needed economic and political reforms. As Egypt embarked on its economic reforms, the U.S. administration’s democracy-promotion policy—the so-called freedom agenda—became a constant source of friction between the states. Bilateral problems surfaced shortly after President Bush took office, when pro-democracy activist and dual U.S.-Egyptian national Saad Eddin Ibrahim was incarcerated for “defaming Egypt.” In 2003, prior to the Iraq war, the administration made $130 million in U.S. foreign assistance conditional on his release. Though Ibrahim was ultimately freed, for the remaining five years of the Bush administration, President Mubarak did not visit Washington.

Another point of contention was the January 2005 arrest of presidential candidate and Mubarak critic Ayman Nour. Following his apprehension, then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice postponed a planned visit to Egypt. When she did eventually visit Cairo in June of that year, she gave what was billed as a “major policy speech” on democracy. In this poisoned environment, little appetite remained in the Bush administration to move forward with a free trade agreement (FTA), a priority item for economic reformers within the National Democratic Party (NDP).

Toward the end of its second term, bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration’s freedom agenda ran out of steam. Washington, for example, offered uncharacteristically tepid criticism of Egypt’s arrest and conviction of a student blogger in April 2007, did not note canceled municipal elections in 2006, and barely remarked upon constitutional “reforms” in 2007 that enshrined the emergency law (discussed in part 1 of this monograph) into the constitution.

Likewise, around the same time, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone described Ayman Nour’s fate as “an Egyptian issue,” and seemingly legitimated Nour’s arrest by saying “this case is known in Egypt to have both political and criminal dimensions, predominantly criminal.” The ambassador also famously opined during an interview that “If [Hosni Mubarak] had to run for office in the United States, my guess is he could win elections in the United States.” He likewise characterized Egypt as an “exemplary model of religious freedom,” a judgment that ran counter to assessments by Freedom House and the State Department’s own International Religious Freedom report.

But the cessation of criticism and the news and obsequious tone emanating from the U.S. embassy in Cairo did little to improve the soured environment between the two states. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to Ambassador Ricciardone’s departure in February 2008, an Egyptian government–influenced newspaper printed a fabricated story implicating the U.S. diplomat in an extramarital relationship with an Egyptian woman plotting to bomb the U.S. embassy.

Ambassador Ricciardone’s successor, Margaret Scobey, was afforded similar treatment. Despite a remarkably restrained confirmation testimony—in which the ambassador-designate devoted only two, albeit harsh and succinct, paragraphs to Egypt’s problematic governance record in nine pages of testimony— Scobey was roundly pilloried by the local press even prior to her posting. One particularly nasty editorial the day following her testimony likened the ambassador to “the most famous dog in the world of film”: Scooby Doo.

The end of the Bush administration changed the atmosphere. In an apparent goodwill gesture toward the Obama administration, Egypt released Nour from prison in February 2009, two years early. The White House reciprocated by inviting Mubarak to Washington and choosing Cairo as the site for President Obama’s much anticipated June 4, 2009, address to the Muslim world. Perhaps predictably, the word “democracy”— in reference to Egypt—was not mentioned during the speech.

Consistent with the Obama administration’s conciliatory approach toward Cairo, Ambassador Scobey continued to lavish praise on Egypt. During a December 2009 visit to Tanta University, for example, she applauded the state of religious coexistence in Egypt, and commended freedom of the press and human rights in the country. Further reassuring Cairo of Washington’s new approach, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced during a visit in May 2009 that the $1.3 billion in annual military assistance to Egypt “should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position.”

These positions were complemented by the administration’s efforts to tread lightly while funding nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt. While the U.S. embassy was apparently disbursing funds from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) without input from Cairo, the largest U.S. source of funding—USAID—provided funds only to NGOs registered with—and approved by— the regime.

Indeed, the first ostensibly critical administration reference to governance issues in Egypt seems to have come in May 2010, when a press statement expressed disappointment with Cairo’s decision to extend its State of Emergency. Then, in September 2010, according to the official “readout” of a White House meeting between presidents Obama and Mubarak that occurred on the sidelines of renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations:

The leaders also discussed various regional issues of mutual interest, and President Obama reaffirmed the importance of a vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt. The President welcomes commitments Egypt has made as part of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.

Notwithstanding this rhetorical nod to democracy and human rights, as the sensitive political transition in Egypt approached—in particular the 2011 presidential elections—the U.S. administration appeared hesitant to hammer Mubarak on these perennial hot-button issues. This ambivalence over whether to support the continued stability provided by the authoritarian Mubarak regime or a transition to a new government with an unknown disposition toward Washington was best reflected in the administration’s response to Egypt’s January 25 revolution.

Essentially, the administration demurred and vacillated on the issue of whether Mubarak should step down until weeks had passed and the demonstrators’ victory became obvious. Early on, Vice President Joe Biden had stated that Mubarak was not a dictator and should not step down. Then, later, when demonstrations gathered momentum, the administration dispatched former U.S. ambassador Frank Wisner to Cairo to privately ask Mubarak to step down. In the subsequent series of statements that issued from the White House, President Obama did not define the U.S. position as calling for Mubarak to leave “now” or to await the end of his preferred eight-month transition period.

Ongoing Concerns with Islamists

Now that Mubarak is gone, the administration is clearly rooting for a new Egyptian government led by liberals. An ultimate victory by the Islamists, however, would present severe complications for Washington’s Middle East policy.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) constitutes the most potent and coherent opposition group in Egypt, and has long boasted that it implements democratic practices in its internal matters. Brotherhood leaders, in fact, point to the 2009 decision by Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef to step down—instead of remaining for a second term—as proof of the organization’s respect for democratic traditions, in sharp contrast to NDP practices. Notably, these claims were refuted post-revolution by the MB’s youth contingent, who publicly criticized opaque decisionmaking within the organization.

For Washington, though, the idea of yet another Islamist party assuming power in the region—particularly one that is on record as supporting the “resistance” in Palestine, rejecting a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and advocating the destruction of the Jewish state—obviously holds little appeal.

Recognizing the significance of the MB, the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has maintained midlevel contacts with the group through the U.S. embassy in Cairo, contacts largely confined to Islamist members of the now defunct parliament. As such, Washington invited eleven members of the MB parliamentary bloc to attend President Obama’s Cairo speech. The Islamists were not invited to participate in the private meeting with the president, though. According to then Islamic bloc leader Muhammad al-Katatny, this compromise solution indicated that the United States could not avoid the Islamists when meeting with the “influential opposition” in Egypt.

Back in Washington, the debate continues about the official U.S. policy toward the Egyptian MB. While the group rejects violence—and has an antagonistic relationship with al-Qaeda—the concern is that the MB is employing liberal means (i.e., the ballot box) to achieve illiberal ends (i.e., the establishment of an Islamic state). While the proscription on religiously based political parties remains enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, the MB has declared its intent to establish the Freedom and Justice Party, enabling the Islamists for the first time to not stand as “independents” in parliamentary and presidential elections. And they will likely perform well, making it increasingly urgent that the administration develop a clear policy on U.S. contacts with this Islamist organization— and its more moderate cousin, the Wasat Party.

Imperfect Liberals

The emergence of the Kefaya movement, Ayman Nour’s 2005 presidential candidacy, and Mohamed ElBaradei’s 2009 return to Egypt firmly established the presence of a liberal opposition to authoritarianism. In just five years, this liberal trend succeeded in focusing unprecedented local and international attention on governance issues in Egypt, and eventually in orchestrating the toppling of the Mubarak regime.

At present, it is unclear who will emerge as Mubarak’s replacement. While many Egyptians may consider ElBaradei and Nour to be compelling liberal alternatives, these leaders suffer from a lack of widespread popularity at home and have drawbacks from Washington’s perspective. There are indications, for example, that ElBaradei may not share the former regime’s affinity for the United States, concerns about Iran, or tolerance of Israel.

As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), not only did ElBaradei condemn Israel for bombing Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007—suggesting he would oppose U.S. military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon—in 2009 he declared Israel the “No. 1 threat to the Middle East.” In fact, during his tenure at the IAEA, he was so disposed toward Tehran that, after his departure, when the IAEA issued an uncharacteristically critical report on the state’s nuclear program, the Iranian foreign minister lamented the departure of ElBaradei.

Ayman Nour is less problematic in some ways. Charismatic and intellectually impressive, Nour is unabashedly pro-Western in his orientation, openly advocating unambiguous U.S. support for democracy and human rights in Egypt.157 At the same time, Nour has a large ego, which apparently makes it difficult for him to work with other like-minded liberals. And if accounts from former al-Ghad Party members and other Egyptian liberals are to be believed, Nour has problems with Jews and Israel. While this author’s meetings with Nour revealed no signs of this alleged prejudice, his critics point to a 2010 appearance at a Muslim Brotherhood rally in commemoration of units that fought in 1948 to prevent the establishment of Israel as supporting the claim.159 In Egypt, however, where the official regime press has long been among the world’s most anti-Semitic, Nour’s alleged transgressions on this front are relatively benign.

At one time, another potential liberal candidate for the presidency might have been Wafd Party head El Sayed El Badawy. El Badawy, who was elected chairman of the Wafd in May 2010, replacing the party’s perennial chief Mahmud Abuza, is charismatic, telegenic, and wealthy. Moreover, he owns a television station and a controlling interest in the “independent” Egyptian daily al-Dustour.

Alas, in the run-up to the revolution, El Badawy was discredited when he sought to become part of the loyal opposition. In October 2010, less than two months after El Badawy took control of al-Dustour, it was announced that Ibrahim Issa, the popular editor of the newspaper, had been dismissed. The firing of Issa, a sharp-tongued critic of the Mubarak regime, was widely understood as an effort by El Badawy to ingratiate himself and the Wafd with the NDP. So, too, was El Badawy’s advocacy for participating in—and thereby legitimating—the 2010 parliamentary elections, which the un-co-opted opposition boycotted.

Though not “liberal,” former regime functionary Amr Mousa—for lack of a better category—could also be considered part of this trend. Mousa, a known quantity in Washington, supported the 1991 U.S.-led effort to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. At the same time, he has, over the years—in his capacity as Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general—proved a critic of U.S. policy in the region. He has also frequently taken a populist line on Israel, such as when he accused the Jewish state in 2003 of “state terrorism” after it bombed a Palestinian Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria in response to attacks by the Damascus-based group that claimed nineteen victims in Haifa. Nevertheless, representing continuity from the Mubarak era, Mousa—who is seventy-four years old—would likely be amenable to the Egyptian military.

Of course, it’s quite possible that none of these figures will emerge as Egypt’s chief executive. Indeed, given the military’s seemingly burgeoning cooperation with the Islamists, someone like former air force commander and vice president Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq could emerge as the establishment’s candidate for president. In addition to having the confidence of former regime figures and the respect of the business community for his role, as head of civil aviation, in overhauling Cairo airport, Shafiq has credibility with the military, having served during the 1973 October war and the subsequent War of Attrition. Three-term chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan, who is due for mandatory retirement in 2011, could also emerge as the military establishment’s candidate.

Meet the New Nasser?

Provided a smooth transfer of power occurs, Mubarak’s successor will almost certainly work, after consolidating power, to reestablish Egypt’s once preeminent position in the region. In search of approbation across the Middle East and popularity at home, Egypt’s new leadership may, in turn, consider a reorientation of the state’s foreign policy that reflects a more populist (i.e., anti-Western) bent.

In short, it is possible that Egypt could become like Turkey under the Justice and Development Party. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seen his stature grow in recent years as Ankara has increasingly pursued an anti-Western and anti- Israel foreign policy. The trend started in 2003 when Turkey rebuffed Washington’s request to transport military materiel across its territory to northern Iraq. More recently, this policy has been characterized by Erdoğan’s highly public chilling of relations with erstwhile ally Israel—a move that has both endeared the Turkish premier to people across the region and shored up his popularity at home—and the establishment of military ties with China.

Erdoğan’s assertive foreign policy earned him the moniker the “new Nasser,” a reference to the Egyptian president who presided over a period of unrivaled regional dominance in the mid-twentieth century. But Gamal Abdul Nasser died forty years ago, and ever since, Egyptian power and regional influence have steadily eroded. Today, Cairo’s diplomatic and political muscle is atrophied.

In an effort to reinvigorate Egypt’s regional standing, Mubarak’s successor might find it expedient to follow the Turkish model and rediscover Nasserism. The former leader remains a revered icon in Egypt. For Washington, a more robust Egyptian foreign policy would doubtless be a welcome change, but a return to Nasserism—or any shift out of the Western orbit—would be problematic. After all, Nasser’s years in office were difficult ones for the United States in the Middle East. During his tenure, Egypt toppled one government in Yemen and attempted to remove another in Lebanon; the state also nationalized the Suez Canal, provoked a war with Israel, and inspired several revolutions in the region.

While a shift in Egyptian foreign policy might not imply a break with Washington, it would entail a less reliable regional ally. Notwithstanding Cairo’s dependability, history suggests that concerns about shifts in Egyptian policy are well founded. Most famously, Anwar Sadat expelled 20,000 Soviet military advisors in 1972, laying the groundwork for a reorientation of Eg ypt toward the West. In the decades since, Egypt has established defense relationships with some of Washington’s leading nemeses and rivals. In the 1980s, Pyongyang (North Korea) helped Cairo build a Scud B factory; in the 1990s, North Korea helped Egypt develop the Scud C; and in 2010, Egypt and China delivered the 120th Aero L-29 Delfín, a training plane.

In addition to its dalliances with North Korea, Cairo has engaged in nuclear activities first deemed a “concern” by the IAEA in 2005. Nearly five years on, according to the last publicly available reporting on the matter, the source of some high- and low-enriched uranium particles discovered at the Egyptian Nuclear Research Center of Inshas remains a mystery to the IAEA.

Given Washington’s already tenuous relations with Ankara, and despite Cairo’s relative weakness in recent years, any change in Cairo’s orientation would undermine an already shaky U.S. strategic architecture in the region. In fact, should Cairo leave the U.S. orbit altogether, then for the first time in modern history, all three civilizational powers of the Middle East—Iran, Turkey, and Egypt—would be at odds with the United States.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, from where this monograph, of which this is part 5, is adapted. Previously, he served as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; in that capacity he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.


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