A Curtain for Egypt

by Henry Precht

In the turbulent weeks after the Iranian revolution we officers in the State Department or in Embassy Tehran struggled to construct a “normal” relationship with the decidedly abnormal, strife-ridden new regime. In frustration I used to tell my wife that we should hang a thick curtain around Iran’s borders and return home. Every so often we would lift a corner and peak in. If conditions seemed to be settling down, we might again venture back. If strife continued, we would pull the curtain closed and patiently wait for more placid times to come.

It seems that the Obama administration has installed an Iranian curtain around Egypt.

Egypt didn’t rate a mention in the President’s State of the Union. The Capitol Hill-White House debate about whether the army’s move to take over last summer was a coup or not seems to have been called a draw. When the regime jails journalists or democracy advocates, Washington is silent or late with a reaction. There’s a simple explanation for this silence or apparent neglect of a country that used to be considered a key ally: No one who is not marching in Tahrir Square has the foggiest idea how to address the strife-ridden land of the pharaohs.

In the old days when neocons were making policy in the Reagan White House and tried to manipulate Egypt for their Cold War purposes (e.g., a base on the Red Sea), I was working in Embassy Cairo. We used to warn, “Don’t take Egypt for granted!” As if the ghost of Nasser might return and resume his dirty work of stirring up regional anti-Americanism and tensions with Israel. But President Mubarak, despite all-out, but clumsy PR efforts, never resembled a mock-up of Nasser. A risk averse leader of a deeply conservative country, he was not about to upset Washington or Jerusalem. Instead, he set his set his heart and nervous fingers to dig into Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets.

Mubarak failed to find enough cash to satisfy his fecund people — except for those who promised that their newly gained wealth would trickle down to the youth gathered on street corners. His great plan for a new, prosperous Egypt failed. And so revolution came — and came again and yet again.

Egypt’s new pharaoh figure is almost certainly to be General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The senior military chief, he offers his countrymen another Nasser look-alike, with the same seeming rectitude, same toughness in pursuit of patriotism and order plus the Mubarak additional quality of grasping for the Saudis’ sustaining riches.

Al-Sisi’s problem is that the Egypt he will inherit is not the one Nasser and the early Mubarak could depend on. It is, rather, a bit closer to Sadat’s country — expectant, easily disappointed and unfaithful. Probably half the population now stands against whoever wears a general’s uniform with a pharaoh’s double crown promising ample bread and nationalistic rhetoric. These disaffected, first-time voters were the revolution’s ostensible winners; they became after last summer’s coup its losers. This half of the population, feeling betrayed, is infected with the Muslim Brotherhood’s message of guided democracy, legitimacy and religiosity. Unhappily for this year’s new Nasser, his opponents also seem skilled in and determined to use terrorism to fight him.

It is easy in these circumstances to see how an Iranian curtain might appeal to those charged with formulating policy towards Egypt in Washington. On the one hand, there are the old timers for whom the peace treaty with Israel is the only thing that matters. Other Democrats march under the banner of human rights. Fighting terrorism is what matters for a third bunch. The market for arms sales counts most importantly for another group. And, of course, no one wants to offend Saudi Arabia, Cairo’s generous patron.

When offered so many policy choices, some in direct conflict with other options, a president will be tempted to check, “All of the above,” or “None of the above.” That’s where the Iranian curtain comes in handy. Keep quiet whenever possible. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes send anti-terrorist intelligence and training, utter a whisper now and then about human rights and maintain the continuing, quiet flow of weapons sales.

All the while expecting — hoping — that, as it has for over 6,000 years, the Nile will flow freely, eventually abundant in its gifts and life along its banks will go on with tolerable tranquility.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. An “old timer”, wanting to continue sending arms, peeking under the “curtain”, keeping a low profile. It’s going to take those continued arms shipments to keep the lid on Egypt’s restless youthful population and also the inside/outside forces that will come to bear. I wonder, are there strings attached to that “Saudi Money”? Of course, no one saw this coming either. Way to go, U.S.Intelligence, all the so called experts in the Washington think tanks, dwelling over Iran, dancing with Israel, all doing their best to slice and dice “O”, the P.O.T.U.S., as the World turns. The “Civilian” version of the “Military’s famous Clusterfuck”. Bravo, they have served Israel again, over their own country. But one thing is clear, they will never fight for the U.S.A. or its people.

  2. Well Henry, you’re right, absolutely. But, what do you recommend as an alternative? Anything beyond what you describe as “the curtain” not only involves substantially increased risk but also has the effect of turning our policy in a specific direction (pro or anti-revolutionary change, pro or ant- Saudi, less or more open confrontation with Iran, Russia). There’s no consensus to support any of those directions. Whenever considering U.S. policy options it is never enough to consider what is “right” or “best” and it doesn’t matter whether one thinks either moral or strictly geostrategic concerns have greater value. The “decider” is ‘What will the domestic political consensus support?” Currently — our politics will support nothing, … other than your “curtain” strategy.

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