Since September 11, 2001, Washington’s policies in the Middle East have proven a grim imperial comedy of errors and increasingly a spectacle of how a superpower is sidelined. In this drama, barely noticed by the American media, Uncle Sam’s keystone ally in the Arab world, Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has largely turned its back on the Obama administration. As with so many of America’s former client states across the aptly named “arc of instability,” Egypt has undergone a tumultuous journey—from autocracy to democracy to a regurgitated form of military rule and repression, making its ally of four decades appear clueless.
Egypt remains one of the top recipients of US foreign aid, with the Pentagon continuing to pamper the Egyptian military with advanced jet fighters, helicopters, missiles and tanks. Between January 2011 and May 2014, Egypt underwent a democratic revolution, powered by a popular movement, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. It enjoyed a brief tryst with democracy before suffering an anti-democratic counter-revolution by its generals. In all of this, what has been the input of the planet’s last superpower in shaping the history of the most populous country in the strategic Middle East? Zilch. Its “generosity” toward Cairo notwithstanding, Washington has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.
Given how long the United States has been Egypt’s critical supporter, the State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies should have built up a storehouse of understanding as to what makes the Land of the Pharaohs tick. Their failure to do so, coupled with a striking lack of familiarity by two administrations with the country’s recent history, has led to America’s humiliating sidelining in Egypt. It’s a story that has yet to be pieced together, although it’s indicative of how from Kabul to Bonn, Baghdad to Rio de Janeiro so many ruling elites no longer feel that listening to Washington is a must.
An Army as Immovable as the Pyramids
Ever since 1952, when a group of nationalist military officers ended the pro-British monarchy, Egypt’s army has been in the driver’s seat. From Gamal Abdul Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, its rulers were military commanders. And if, in February 2011, a majority of the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) abandoned Mubarak, it was only to stop him from passing the presidency on to his son Gamal on his 83rd birthday. The neoliberal policies pursued by the Mubarak government at the behest of that businessman son from 2004 onward made SCAF fear that the military’s stake in the public sector of the economy and its extensive public-private partnerships would be doomed.
Fattened on the patronage of successive military presidents, Egypt’s military-industrial complex had grown enormously. Its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP), though a state secret, could be as high as 40 percent, unparalleled in the region. The chief executives of fifty-five of Egypt's largest companies, contributing a third of that GDP, are former generals.
Working with the interior ministry, which controls the national police force, paramilitary units and the civilian intelligence agencies, SCAF (headed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, doubling as the defense minister) would later orchestrate the protest movement against popularly elected President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. That campaign reached its crescendo on June 30, 2013. Three days later, SCAF toppled Morsi and has held him in prison ever since.
The generals carried out their coup at a moment when, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, 52 percent approved of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and 53 percent backed Morsi, who had won the presidency a year earlier with 52 percent of the vote.
Washington Misses the Plot
Remarkably, Obama administration officials failed to grasp that the generals, in conjunction with Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, were the prime movers behind the Tamarod (Arabic for “rebellion”) campaign launched on April 22, 2013. Egyptians were urged to sign a petition addressed to Morsi that was both simplistic and populist. “Because security has not returned, because the poor have no place, because I have no dignity in my own country…,” read the text in part, “we don’t want you anymore,” and it called for an early presidential election. In little over two months, the organizers claimed that they had amassed 22.1 million signatures, amounting to 85 percent of those who had participated in the presidential election of 2012. Where those millions of individually signed petitions were being stored was never made public, nor did any independent organization verify their existence or numbers.
As the Tamarod campaign gained momentum, the interior ministry’s secret police infiltrated it, as did former Mubarak supporters, while elements of the police state of the Mubarak era were revived. Reports that cronies of the toppled president were providing the funding for the campaign began to circulate. The nationwide offices of the Free Egyptians—a party founded by Naguib Sawiria, a businessman close to Mubarak and worth $2.5 billion—were opened to Tamarod organizers. Sawiria also paid for a promotional music video that was played repeatedly on OnTV, a television channel he had founded. In addition, he let his newspaper, Al Masry al Youm, be used as a vehicle for the campaign.
In the run-up to the mass demonstration in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi’s rule, power cuts became more frequent and fuel shortages acute. As policemen mysteriously disappeared from the streets, the crime rate soared. All of this stoked anti-Morsi feelings and was apparently orchestrated with military precision by those who plotted the coup.
Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times provided evidence of meticulous planning, especially by the Interior Ministry, in a report headlined “Sudden Improvements in Egypt Suggest a Campaign to Undermine Morsi.” They quoted Ahmad Nabawi, a Cairo gas station manager, saying that he had heard several explanations for the gas crisis: technical glitches at the storage facilities, the arrival of low quality gas from abroad and excessive stockpiling by the public. But he put what happened in context this way: “We went to sleep one night, woke up the next day, and the crisis was gone”—and so was Morsi. Unsurprisingly, of all the ministers in the Morsi government, Interior Minister Ibrahim was the only one retained in the interim cabinet appointed by the generals.
“See No Evil”
Initially, President Obama refused to call what had occurred in Egypt a military “coup.” Instead, he spoke vaguely of “military actions” in order to stay on the right side of the Foreign Assistance Act in which Congress forbade foreign aid to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Within a week of the coup, with Morsi and the first of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers thrown behind bars, SCAF sidelined the Tamarod campaigners. They were left complaining that the generals, violating their promise, had not consulted them on the road map to normalization. Having ridden the Tamarod horse to total power, SCAF had no more use for it.
When Morsi supporters staged peaceful sit-ins at two squares in Cairo, the military junta could not bear the sight of tens of thousands of Egyptians quietly defying its arbitrary will. Waiting until the holy fasting month of Ramadan and the three-day festival of Eid ul Fitr had passed, they made their move. On August 14, Interior Ministry troops massacred nearly 1,000 protesters as they cleared the two sites.
“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” said Obama. However, in the end all he did was cancel annual joint military exercises with Egypt scheduled for September and suspend the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian air force. This mattered little, if at all, to the generals.
The helplessness of Washington before a client state with an economy in freefall was little short of stunning. Pentagon officials, for instance, revealed that since the “ouster of Mr. Morsi,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had had fifteen telephone conversations with coup leader General Sisi, pleading with him to “change course”—all in vain.
Five weeks later, the disjuncture between Washington and Cairo became embarrassingly overt. On September 23, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ordered the 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood disbanded. In a speech at the UN General Assembly the next day, President Obama stated that, in deposing Morsi, the Egyptian military had “responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn.” He then offered only token criticism, claiming that the new military government had “made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy” and that future American support would “depend upon Egypt's progress in pursuing a more democratic path.”
General Sisi was having none of this. In a newspaper interview on October 9, he warned that he would not tolerate pressure from Washington “whether through actions or hints.” Already, there had been a sign that Uncle Sam’s mild criticism was being diluted. A day earlier, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden stated that reports that all military assistance to Egypt would be halted were “false.”
In early November, unmistakably pliant words came from Secretary of State John Kerry. “The roadmap [to democracy] is being carried out to the best of our perception,” he said at a press conference, while standing alongside his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy during a surprise stopover in Cairo. “There are questions we have here and there about one thing or another, but Foreign Minister Fahmy has reemphasized to me again and again that they have every intent and they are determined to fulfill that particular decision and that [democratic] track.”
The Generals Axe the Secular, Pro-Democracy Movement
Fahmy and Kerry were looking at that democratic “track” from opposite perspectives. Three weeks later, the military-appointed president, Adly Mansour, approved a new law that virtually outlawed the right to protest. This law gave the interior minister or senior police officials a power that only the judiciary had previously possessed. The minister or his minions could now cancel, postpone or change the location of protests for which organizers had earlier received the permission of local police. Human Rights groups and secular organizations argued that the 2013 Protest Law was reminiscent of Mubarak’s repressive policies. Washington kept quiet.
Two days later, critics of the law held a demonstration in Cairo that was violently dispersed by the police. Dozens of activists, including the co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, Ahmed Maher and Muhammad Adel, seminal actors in the Tahrir Square protests against Mubarak, were arrested. Maher and Adel were each sentenced to three years imprisonment.
Following the coup, the number of prisoners rose exponentially, reaching at least 16,000 within eight months, including nearly 3,000 top or mid-level members of the Brotherhood. (Unofficial estimates put the total figure at 22,000.) When forty inmates herded into a typical cell in custom-built jails proved insufficient, many Brotherhood members were detained without charges for months in police station lockups or impromptu prisons set up in police training camps where beatings were routine.
The 846 Egyptians who lost their lives in the pro-democracy revolution that ended Mubarak’s authoritarian regime were dwarfed by the nearly 3,000 people killed in a brutal series of crackdowns that followed the coup, according to human rights groups.
The sentencing of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement—which through its social media campaign had played such a crucial role in sparking anti-Mubarak demonstrations—foreshadowed something far worse. On April 28, 2014, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters outlawed that secular, pro-democracy movement based on a complaint by a lawyer that it had “tarnished the image” of Egypt and colluded with foreign parties.
With this set of acts, the post-coup regime turned the clock back to Mubarakism—without Mubarak.
Setting the World’s Mass Death-Penalty Record
On that same April day in the southern Egyptian town of Minya, Judge Saeed Elgazar broke his own month-old world death-penalty record of 529 (in a trial that lasting less than an hour) by recommending the death penalty for 683 Egyptians, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. The defendants were charged in an August 2013 attack on a police station in Minya, which led to the death of a policeman. Of the accused, 60 percent had not been in Minya on the day of the assault. Defense lawyers were prevented from presenting their case during the two-day trial.
Elgazar was a grotesquely exaggerated example of a judiciary from the Mubarak era that remained unreconciled to the onset of democracy. It proved only too willing to back the military junta in terrorizing those even thinking of protesting the generals’ rule. A US State Department spokesperson called the judge’s first trial “unconscionable.” But as before, the military-backed government in Cairo remained unmoved. The Egyptian Justice Department warned that “comments on judicial verdicts are unacceptable, be they from external or internal parties as they represent a serious transgression against the independence of the judiciary.”
When the second mass sentence came down, Kerry murmured that “there have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process, the court system, that have raised serious challenges for all of us. It’s actions, not words that will make the difference.” A defiant Nabil Fahmy responded by defending the verdicts as having been rendered by an independent judiciary “completely independent from the government.”
One predictable response to the military junta’s brutal squashing of the Brotherhood, which over the previous few decades had committed itself to participating in a multi-party democracy, was the swelling of the ranks of militant jihadist groups. Of these Ansar Bait al Muqdus (“Helpers of Jerusalem”), based in the Sinai Peninsula and linked to Al Qaeda, was the largest. After the coup, it gained new members and its terror attacks spread to the bulk of Egypt west of the Suez Canal.
In late December, a car bomb detonated by its operatives outside police headquarters in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura killed sixteen police officers. Blaming the bombing on the Muslim Brotherhood instead, the interim government classified it as a “terrorist organization,” even though Ansar had claimed responsibility for the attack. By pinning the terrorist label on the Brotherhood, the generals gave themselves carte blanche to further intensify their ruthless suppression of it.
While SCAF pursued its relentless anti-Brotherhood crusade and reestablished itself as the ruling power in Egypt, it threw a sop to the Obama administration. It introduced a new constitution, having suspended the previous one drafted by a popularly elected constituent assembly. The generals appointed a handpicked committee of fifty to amend the suspended document. They included only two members of the Islamist groups that had jointly gained two-thirds of the popular vote in Egypt’s first free elections.
Predictably, the resulting document was military-friendly. It stipulated that the defense minister must be a serving military officer and that civilians would be subject to trial in military courts for certain offenses. Banned was the formation of political parties based on religion, race, gender or geography, and none was allowed to have a paramilitary wing. The document was signed by the interim president in early December. A national referendum on it was held in mid-January under tight security, with 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen deployed nationwide. The result: a vote of 98.1 percent in favor. (A referendum on the 2012 constitution during Morsi’s presidency had gained the backing of 64 percent of voters.)
The charade of this exercise seemed to escape policymakers in Washington. Kerry blithely spoke of the SCAF-appointed government committing itself to “a transition process that expands democratic rights and leads to a civilian-led, inclusive government through free and fair elections.”
By this time, the diplomatic and financial support of the oil rich Gulf States ruled by autocratic monarchs was proving crucial to the military regime in Cairo. Immediately after the coup, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates poured $12 billion into Cairo's nearly empty coffers. In late January 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE came up with an additional $5.8 billion. This helped Sisi brush off any pressure from Washington and monopolize power his way.
The Strongman as Savior
By then, huge photographs and portraits of General Sisi had become a common fixture on the streets in Cairo and other major cities. On January 27, interim president Mansour promoted Sisi to field marshal. Later that day, SCAF nominated him for the presidency. A slew of stories started appearing in the state-run media as well as most of its privately owned counterparts backing Sisi and touting the benefits of strong military leadership.
Sisi’s original plan to announce his candidacy on February 11, the third anniversary of Mubarak’s forced resignation, hit an unexpected speed bump. On February 7, Al Watan, a newspaper supportive of the military regime with longstanding ties to the security establishment, printed an embarrassing front-page story placing Sisi’s worth at 30 million Egyptian pounds ($4.2 million). Within minutes of its being printed, state officials contacted the paper’s owner, Magdy El Galad, demanding its immediate removal. He instantly complied.
Sisi continued to place his henchmen in key positions in the armed forces, including military intelligence. On March 26, he resigned from the army, declaring himself an independent candidate. Nonetheless, as Alaa Al Aswany, a prominent writer and commentator, revealed, senior military commanders continued to perform important tasks for him. There was nothing faintly fair about such an election, Aswany pointed out. Most other potential candidates for the presidency had reached a similar conclusion—that entering the race was futile. Hamdeen Sabahi, a secular left-of-center politician, was the only exception.
Despite relentless propaganda by state and private media portraying Sisi as the future savior of Egypt, things went badly for him. That he would be crowned as a latter-day Pharaoh was a given. The only unknown was: How many Egyptians would bother to participate in the stage-managed exercise?
The turnout proved so poor on May 26, the first day of the two-day election, that panic struck the government, which declared the following day a holiday. In addition, the Justice ministry warned that those who failed to vote would be fined. The authorities suspended train fares to encourage voters to head for polling stations. TV anchors and media celebrities scolded and lambasted their fellow citizens for their apathy, while urging them to rush to their local polling booths. Huge speakers mounted on vans patrolling city neighborhoods alternated raucous exhortations to vote with songs of praise for the military. Al Azhar, the highest Islamic authority in the land, declared that to fail to vote was “to disobey the nation.” Pope Tawadros, head of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church whose members form 10 percent of the population, appeared on state television to urge voters to cast their ballots.
The former field marshal had demanded an 80 percent turnout from the country’s 56 million voters. Yet even with voting extended to a third day and a multifaceted campaign to shore up the numbers, polling stations were reportedly empty across the country. The announced official turnout of 47.5 percent was widely disbelieved. Sabahi described the figure as "an insult to the intelligence of Egyptians.” Sisi was again officially given 96.1 percent of the vote, Sabahi 3 percent. The spokesman for the National Alliance for the Defense of Legitimacy put voter participation at 10-12 percent. The turnout for the first free and fair two-day presidential election, held in June 2012 without endless exhortations by TV anchors and religious leaders, had been 52 percent.
Among the regional and world leaders who telephoned Sisi to congratulate him on his landslide electoral triumph was Russian President Vladimir Putin. No such call has yet come in from President Obama.
For Washington, still so generous in its handouts to the Arab Republic of Egypt and its military, trailing behind the Russian Bear in embracing the latest strongman on the Nile should be considered an unqualified humiliation. With its former sphere of influence in tatters, the last superpower has been decisively sidelined by its key Arab ally in the region.