by Mitchell Plitnick
The comedy of errors that is US involvement in Egypt is reaching new heights. The Obama administration continues to be torn by conflicting preferences and concerns. This week its blunders reached new heights after it blessed the trip of Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Egypt. The ensuing farce was inevitable.
The GOP Senators are somewhat less obstructionist than others in their party; they have not always opposed Barack Obama’s policies simply because they were his policies. While many of the current Republican crew are virtually absolute in opposing anything Obama does, McCain, in particular, has only done that most of the time. But they are certainly not Obama’s allies, and, while the administration made it clear that the duo were not their representatives in Egypt, it was almost certain they would only complicate matters. So, they did.
By hypocritically (even if accurately) labelling the military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi a coup, McCain and Graham further aggravated the box of Obama’s indecision. If anyone believes the good Senators are sincere in their call for the interim government to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, they need only recall McCain’s description of them in 2011: “I think they are a radical group that first of all supports Sharia law; that in itself is anti-democratic — at least as far as women are concerned. They have been involved with other terrorist organizations and I believe that they should be specifically excluded from any transition government.” Does anyone seriously believe his views have changed so much in two years?
Moreover, while Graham and McCain made it clear they consider Morsi’s ouster a coup, they also support continuing aid to Egypt, which would be forbidden under US law if there was indeed a military coup.
But McCain and Graham are only one side of the coin. On the other is US Secretary of State John Kerry and his ill-advised statement that the military acted to “restore Egyptian democracy” when they ejected a duly elected president. In other words, we had the administration’s lead diplomat angering the Muslim Brotherhood with his statement, and GOP senators infuriating the military and its current government with their own. A nice double whammy.
As I pointed out last week, this sort of snafu is the result of indecisiveness on Obama’s part regarding how to respond to the events in Egypt. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) represents the old Egypt, the one the US had a very cozy relationship with, and their announced agenda in the wake of deposing Morsi was for a new transition to a civilian government. But despite that, SCAF still ousted a democratically elected president in a military coup. The Muslim Brotherhood was one of a number of so-called moderate Islamist governments coming to power in the region in recent years, and might have represented a worrying trend for the Western interests of a potential region-wide alliance of states including Tunisia, Turkey and possibly others as change continues in the Arab world. The Brotherhood shot themselves in the foot by trying to impose their will on Egypt and attempting to re-establish a nearly dictatorial presidency and failing to take significant action on the economy. It seems, from current polls, that the Brotherhood has a lot less support in Egypt than they once did. But they were ousted in a coup, and while their protests are not winning over hearts and minds, neither is the harsh crackdown by the government.
What the US is seeing now is the potential for the Brotherhood to rebound from this major setback by taking up their familiar position of a besieged minority. Indeed, one of the greatest obstacles to reconciliation in Egypt is the Brotherhood’s willingness to embrace that familiar role again, and the government’s apparent willingness to use excessive force, which will enable the Brotherhood to regain some of the sympathy it has lost, if not now, at least in the long-term.
The military and Brotherhood seem both to be pursuing their agendas while remaining completely deaf to the interests and legitimacy of the other side. Indeed, while the Brotherhood is casting the military as just the latest in a long line of military usurpers in Egypt, the SCAF is portraying its adversary’s actions as a part of a “war on terror”, with the Brotherhood in the role of al-Qaeda. That will resonate in the West, which has a tendency to view all Islamists with the same lens. But such abject demonization is likely to have lasting and divisive effects, not only in Egypt, but throughout an Arab world already seething with conflict.
The words of McCain and Graham have perhaps chilled some of the US’ cozy relationship with the SCAF, but the SCAF leadership is well aware of the fact that the Senators do not speak for the Obama administration. In the end, their work will make Obama’s job a bit harder, mostly because they made the entire United States look foolish and poorly organized.
Kerry’s words, however, will prove to be a much greater impediment to US diplomacy in Egypt. By legitimizing the coup, Kerry may well have eliminated any chance for US mediation toward the goal of a truly inclusive government — the only alternative to anti-democratic rule by iron-fist or more spiralling chaos in Egypt. With the Brotherhood’s supporters continuing their protests, while apparently engendering only minority support among the Egyptian populace for such actions, and the military government continuing — and perhaps soon escalating — its crackdown on the Islamist forces it has recently characterized as terrorist elements, true mediation is needed now more than ever. But the waters are now so poisoned that the US and EU may be unable to help even with pure motives.
Considered together, the words of Kerry, Graham and McCain reflect the confusion of US policy in Egypt. It is an absence of policy, caused by a conflict between a desire to see the Middle East move toward moderate Islamist politics on the one hand and the understanding that a return to dictatorship, and the accompanying crackdowns on Islamists, is not going to bring the stability that, above all else, the West most desires. Those conflicting impulses have paralyzed US policymaking and brought about the comedy of errors we are now witnessing.
Ironically, the Brotherhood and related parties throughout the region were already marginalizing themselves and screwing up their chances at power. All the US and the Egyptian military had to do was let them hoist themselves on their own petard. Even now, freeing Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and allowing the people to vote again can well be expected to produce a very different result than it did in 2011. The deafness of all sides to the other — and the refusal to allow political processes to take their own course — has narrowed the options on all sides, leaving few good ones for anyone, especially the United States.