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.