Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. aid to Egypt

Too Late for Obama to Get Right with Egypt

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Read More

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Given that the regime led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is clearly ensconced in power and seems to have the support of most of its people, this decision is a good idea even if it comes far too late to do much to actually do the U.S. much good. President Obama’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew was a mistake that was compounded by Washington’s futile efforts to head off the coup and then impose cuts in aid to Egypt’s military. These measures did nothing to make the military respect human rights or increase support for democracy in Egypt. But they did convince most Egyptians that the U.S. was out of touch with their desire to end the ill-fated experiment with an Islamist government. But by making this belated statement on the eve of the Cairo government’s sentencing of journalists for assisting the Brotherhood, Kerry lost whatever little leverage or standing he might have had in pushing Sisi not to go overboard in his campaign against the Brotherhood. Bad timing has been the hallmark of the administration’s path to its current dilemma. Obama stuck too long with the old regime led by Hosni Mubarak to suit most Egyptians who were ready for change during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that swept the country. But by pushing hard for Mubarak’s ouster after being on his side for so long convinced no one of America’s good intentions. But once Mubarak was out, the president shifted his ground and began working to pave the way for a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime against the wishes of the country’s military that hoped to avert that outcome. Washington was ruthless in threatening dire consequences against the army when it tried to stop the Brotherhood from winning Egypt’s first election and then seemed to support the Islamists once they were firmly in power. When a year of Mohamed Morsi’s government convinced tens of millions of Egyptians to take to the streets in the summer of 2013 to urge the Brotherhood’s ouster, Obama again waited too long to recognize this reality. He was seen as seeking to stop the mass movement aimed at averting the country’s slide into unchecked Islamist tyranny. When the U.S. punished the military government that overthrew Morsi to popular acclaim, that ended any chance of regaining American influence in the world’s most populous Arab nation. Sisi’s government’s ruthless suppression of the Brotherhood makes sense to Egyptians who understand that they must choose between the military and the Islamists. Sisi is right to regard the Brotherhood as a deadly foe that must be crushed now if Egypt is not going to have to face more violence in the future. But it hardly enhances the image of the U.S. as a friend to freedom everywhere for Obama to have finally given in on this point just as Sisi was imprisoning journalists and sentencing large numbers of Brotherhood members to death. Second guessing any president is easy, but the plain fact is that this administration has managed to mess up even those decisions that were correct. At this point, President Obama has alienated virtually everyone in Egypt. Sisi’s government has the power to help influence the Palestinians to reject Hamas as well as providing an anchor for regional stability if it survives, as it probably will, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to take back power. Though the U.S. retains the leverage that its large annual aid to the country gives it, there is little chance anyone in Cairo takes Obama’s admonitions seriously, even when he is right. Egypt is far from being the only foreign-policy disaster that can be laid at the feet of this president. The collapse in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, throwing away its leverage to stop Iran’s nuclear threat, abandoning Syria and then backing away from efforts to punish the Assad regime in Syria, and a foolish “reset” of relations with Russia that led to more aggression from Moscow loom larger than Obama’s streak of bad timing in Egypt. But, like those other examples, Egypt has highlighted the president’s inability to make a decision and his poor choices when he does make up his mind. Having first articulated his flawed vision of a new Middle East policy in a 2009 speech in Cairo, it is both ironic and fitting that Egypt is also a reminder of just how amateurish this administration’s approach to foreign policy has always been.

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Delayed Egypt Aid Decision Causes Concern

Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

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Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

Obama has won hosannas from many Americans for refusing to stage air strikes on Syria and instead striking a deal with Bashar Assad to supposedly eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. He has won even more praise for his now-famous phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his willingness to strike a deal with Iran. But, whatever the merits of those policies (and, in defense of Obama, it must be said that it is possible that the deal with Assad could succeed and that, even if the Iranian deal doesn’t work out, it is one that any president would have to explore), they are not being greeted warmly in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Amman, and other American-allied capitals. Neither is the partial cutoff to the Egyptian military that will encompass only “nonessential” aid (e.g., F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters) while allowing crucial spare parts and counter-terrorism aid to flow.

America’s allies believe they are locked in an existential struggle with both Sunni and Shiite theocrats—al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, Hezbollah and the Quds Force on the other. They are in favor of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and in favor of bombing the Iranian nuclear program. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to adopt their policy preferences. But we need to be aware of them, and to be aware, moreover, that the dominant perception of the U.S. in the region is of a superpower in retreat–a superpower that refuses to uphold red lines and that wants to pursue diplomatic deals of dubious reliability as a cover for full-scale disengagement.

Unfortunately the partial Egypt military aid cutoff–part of an Obama tendency to split the difference on difficult foreign-policy decisions (remember the Afghan surge timeline?)—will only feed that narrative. On the merits, Obama’s decision is defensible; indeed, after initially opposing an aid cutoff, I reluctantly came around to supporting it. But now I’m having second thoughts. I’m afraid the consequence of announcing the aid pullback now is that it will reinforce the tendency of our allies to be a lot less willing to rely on us and to listen to us. They may well wind up taking actions that Washington argues against—in the case of Israel, bombing the Iranian nuclear program; in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have already provided billions in aid to the Egyptian military despite a lack of American support, pursuing their own nuclear programs; in the case of Iraq, Turkey, and Qatar, cozying up to Iran; and so on. A couple of commando raids in Libya and Somalia will not dispel the impression of an America in retreat; it may even reinforce that view by showing how the U.S. prefers to engage in hit-and-run raids rather than in deeper engagement.

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Obama Blunders Again on Egypt

With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.

The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

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With the Obama administration dithering on Syria and then embracing a new round of engagement with Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, which was the top foreign news story this past summer, has largely been out of the headlines since August. In the intervening months, the Egyptian military has been following up on the coup in which they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by suppressing the Islamist group. Though all indications point to the military retaining the support of most Egyptians—they only intervened to topple Morsi after tens of millions took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s push to transform the world’s most populous Arab country into an Islamist state—the situation remains fluid. In the last week alone some 900 Egyptians, including 100 police and military personnel, have been killed in violence sparked by Brotherhood protests. This latest outbreak is apparently the last straw for an Obama administration that had supported Morsi and discouraged the coup. As the New York Times reports, administration officials are saying that within days the U.S. will formally cut military aid to Egypt.

The aid cutoff will be trumpeted by the administration as a sign that it is serious about supporting democracy and upholding the rule of law. But if the goal here is to help end the violence in Egypt or bolster stability in the region, this is the worst mistake President Obama can make. U.S. influence in Egypt is already minimal, but a gesture that will be interpreted as encouraging the Brotherhood protests will be seen as evidence that, despite Washington’s denials, Obama really does favor the Islamists. After handing Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime’s Iranian allies an unexpected and unearned victory in Syria, it appears the administration is determined to pursue its grudge against the military even if it undermines what’s left of U.S. influence in the region as well as undermining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The bloody crackdowns on the Brotherhood are not easy to defend. But the difference between Cairo and Washington is not so much one about tactics as it is about whether a totalitarian Islamist party should have been allowed to hijack the post-Mubarak revolution and ensure that it could never be forced to give up power. While many of us may have hoped that the Arab Spring could bring democracy to Egypt, it was soon clear that this was a pipe dream. The choice in Egypt is not between democracy and the military but between an Islamist dictatorship and secular authoritarians. As such the U.S. should have little doubt about the relative attractiveness of the latter. If anything like democracy is ever to prevail in Egypt—a proposition that ought to be treated as doubtful even as a long-range hypothetical—it can only happen once the Brotherhood is eliminated as a political power.

The aid cutoff, which will reportedly not include some money aimed at bolstering counter-terrorism, won’t topple the military. But it will encourage the Brotherhood to persist in their effort to win back power. Thus rather than helping to ensure that violence is gradually eliminated, it more or less guarantees a longer struggle in which the Islamists will believe their military opponents are isolated.

The arguments in favor of cutting off aid or at least using the threat as leverage in order to force the military are based in an assumption that the Brotherhood is too strong and too numerous to be eliminated. But while the Brotherhood remains formidable, the military has already proved that the Islamists don’t have the support of the people as they had always claimed. The Obama administration has been trying to play both ends against the middle in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and failed miserably, as both Islamists and secular Egyptians blamed the U.S. for backing their opponents.

Had the U.S. cut aid at the time of the coup the policy would have been a mistake, but it would been consistent with past efforts to back the Brotherhood and to keep the military in its place. But to do so now after the Brotherhood is on the run and seemingly beaten is neither logical nor good policy.

It is also, as many in Israel have pointed out, a blow to regional security. The months since the coup have seen Cairo and Jerusalem working together as never before. The two countries have worked together to fight the growing al-Qaeda presence in the Sinai that had filled the vacuum left by the Brotherhood government. The military government has also placed tremendous financial pressure on the Hamas regime in Gaza, a policy that is a blow to terrorism as well as bolstering, at least in theory, the Israel-Palestinian peace process. By contrast, cutting off the aid will be a blow to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and strengthen the voices of those Egyptians who want to revise or junk it altogether.

The consequences of the cutoff cannot be fully predicted, but for the U.S. to blithely assume that Cairo has no other options for a foreign ally or military aid again demonstrates the amateurism that has largely characterized Obama’s foreign policy. The U.S. alliance with Egypt began when Anwar Sadat kicked the Soviets out in exchange for U.S. cash that was made contingent on Cairo keeping the peace with Israel. With Russia now regaining some of their lost prestige by Obama’s allowing Putin to have his way in Syria, is it really such a stretch to believe that Moscow might fill the void left by Washington? Does anyone, even in the Obama State Department, think that the causes of peace, stability, or even democracy would be advanced by another Putin foreign-policy triumph? Having already given new meaning to the term incompetence in its dealings in the Middle East, the administration may be about to make things even worse.

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Where’s the Outrage on Morsi’s Hate?

As we noted last week, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s attempt to explain his anti-Semitic and anti-American televised rant to a group of visiting American senators was that his claim that Israelis were “the descendants of apes and pigs” was taken out of context. That was bad enough but as it turns out the first reports about the meeting fell far short of conveying just how offensive Morsi’s rationalization of hate was. As Josh Rogin reported yesterday at Foreign Policy’s blog The Cable, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who was at the meeting said the Morsi implied that Jewish control of the media was the reason why he was being called to account for his hate speech.

This calls into question not just the continuing U.S. aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi but the determination of the senatorial delegation, including its leader John McCain, to continue their support for the flow of more than a billion dollars in American taxpayer money to a hatemonger. The details of the meeting make it hard to understand how McCain could continue to justify such American support when the explanation for the Morsi rant is actually worse than the original anti-Semitic smears.

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As we noted last week, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s attempt to explain his anti-Semitic and anti-American televised rant to a group of visiting American senators was that his claim that Israelis were “the descendants of apes and pigs” was taken out of context. That was bad enough but as it turns out the first reports about the meeting fell far short of conveying just how offensive Morsi’s rationalization of hate was. As Josh Rogin reported yesterday at Foreign Policy’s blog The Cable, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who was at the meeting said the Morsi implied that Jewish control of the media was the reason why he was being called to account for his hate speech.

This calls into question not just the continuing U.S. aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi but the determination of the senatorial delegation, including its leader John McCain, to continue their support for the flow of more than a billion dollars in American taxpayer money to a hatemonger. The details of the meeting make it hard to understand how McCain could continue to justify such American support when the explanation for the Morsi rant is actually worse than the original anti-Semitic smears.

According to Coons:

“He was attempting to explain himself … then he said, ‘Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don’t view me favorably,'” Coons said.

The Cable asked Coons if Morsi specifically named the Jews as the forces that control the American media. Coons said all the senators believed the implication was obvious.

“He did not say [the Jews], but I watched as the other senators physically recoiled, as did I,” he said. “I thought it was impossible to draw any other conclusion.”

“The meeting then took a very sharply negative turn for some time. It really threatened to cause the entire meeting to come apart so that we could not continue,” Coons said.

Multiple senators impressed upon Morsi that if he was saying the criticisms of his comments were due to the Jews in the media, that statement was potentially even more offensive than his original comments from 2010.

“[Morsi] did not say the Jewish community was making a big deal of this, but he said something [to the effect] that the only conclusion you could read was that he was implying it,” Coons said. “The conversation got so heated that eventually Senator McCain said to the group, ‘OK, we’ve pressed him as hard as we can while being in the boundaries of diplomacy,'” Coons said. “We then went on to discuss a whole range of other topics.”

This raises some serious questions about both U.S. policy and the priorities of those who took part in the meeting.

One has to wonder why it is that a week went by without any of those present at the meeting calling out Morsi for this latest outrage. Did those who kept quiet about this, including McCain, think that Morsi raising the issue of unnamed groups — an obvious reference to Jews — manipulating the media was immaterial to the question of whether U.S. aid to Egypt should continue? Or did they decide that it was unhelpful to their goal of maintaining the U.S. embrace of the Brotherhood for this story to get out sooner?

This revelation makes it imperative that all those present clarify their positions about a policy that requires American taxpayers to go on funding a government that is beginning to rival Iran as a source of anti-Semitic invective. Under Morsi, Egypt is neither a U.S. ally nor a friend. It is a tyrannical regime that has not only subverted the promise of the Arab Spring but also has the potential to be a major source of instability in the region.

If Morsi wants to keep his American money, he’s going to have to do better than to blame his problems on the Jews. And if the senators who attended this meeting and the administration that is determined to keep coddling the Brotherhood wish to justify their position, they are going to have to explain to the American people how giving billions to Morsi is compatible with our values or interests.

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Egypt’s U.S.-Subsidized Politics of Hate

Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.

Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.

The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.

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Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.

Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.

The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.

The administration has tread carefully with Morsi over the last several months, even as he moved quickly to consolidate power in Egypt. With the apparent approval of Washington, Morsi has sought to eliminate any possible check on his ability to govern more or less in the same fashion as deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. Though the Times more or less admits that Morsi’s rhetoric provides us a window as to how he would govern were he not restrained by his need for U.S. cash and Egypt’s relative military weakness, the underlying assumption seems to be that it is America’s interest to prefer him to any possible alternative. It also assumes that Morsi’s influence on events in the region, such as Hamas’s missile offensive against Israel last November, has been entirely benevolent.

In fact, Hamas’s aggressive attitude and risk taking as well as its attempt to increase its influence in the Fatah-controlled West Bank is directly related to the rise of the Brotherhood in Cairo. It is true that President Obama cannot be entirely blamed for the creation of this mess since Mubarak would have fallen no matter what the U.S. did. But his subsequent coddling of Morsi and the Brotherhood as well as the rebukes issued to the Egyptian military set the stage for a situation in which the most populous country in the Arab world is run by a raging anti-Semite who is working to undermine U.S. influence in the region and to strengthen radical forces while being subsidized by American taxpayers.

Morsi’s talk about “apes and pigs” is not a side issue to be ignored in the name of stability or preserving an American ally. It goes straight to the heart of whether Egypt should be treated as a nation ruled by a radical and hostile government that is confident that nothing it does will cause it to lose its American subsidy.

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