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The United States in Egypt: A Fully Hedged Position

How is Washington simultaneously pursuing democratization and a restoration of military rule in Egypt?

July 16, 2012

How is Washington simultaneously pursuing democratization and a restoration of military rule in Egypt?

There is a country in the world whose president went to Egypt early in his term to give a speech that sang the praises of moving toward democracy in the Arab world. And a country whose Secretary of State is a strong voice in condemning any strictures being put on the unfolding of that process.

As well as a country that has invested, on a bipartisan basis, in democracy-building organizations on the ground, in Cairo and beyond. And a country whose prominent technology firms took credit for having facilitated the toppling of Hosni Mubarak with their social media tools.

That country, or so it seems, is invested lock, stock and barrel in the steady transition and unlimited unfolding of democracy in Egypt.

But then there also is a country in the world that has cast its entire lot with the powers that be. A country whose foreign policy and military establishments have long made a point of training Egyptian officers as they rise through the ranks.

That nifty practice has ensured close contacts not just with the generals of the current generation of leaders, but with the next one as well — and the one after that. Nothing, in the Arab world, cements solid relations as much as cordial relations with the military.
But this entente cordiale with the military is not just an exercise in fraternization and the sharing of lofty goals. Material self-interest matters at least as much.

To respond to that very human desire on the part of Egypt’s military, the big global power has, for decades, invested just over a couple of billion dollars a year. Those mighty dollars allowed the Egyptian military to have the kind of military toys every soldier dreams of. Call it an earnest money deposit on the part of the big country.

The trouble, of course, is that the two countries pursuing those diametrically opposed strategies are actually one and the same country — the United States. Evidently, U.S. strategists have learned something from the financial markets, for their bet seems to be a fully hedged position.

That reality is never acknowledged, of course. Whenever Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces makes another far-reaching announcement, dissolving parliament, nixing presidential or prime ministerial candidates, massaging election results, pre-shaping the new constitution or now seizing the definition of all its key points, entirely disregarding the previously announced constitutional convention, then Washington can easily go into huff-and-puff mode.

This is not the way Egyptian authorities should act, it argues. They should let the budding democratic process run its course, it insists.

Yes, it acknowledges, there will be hiccups and setbacks along the way, but it is also important, following the country’s first real elections last May, that the Egyptian people learn to develop their own path, and so on. In one variation or another, U.S. policymakers will arduously broadcast any variation of that message.

A full-blown Islamic state>

And then there is the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether as a result of decades-long disregard for the people and their needs or the self-centeredness of the Mubarak regime and the military, there is a palpable desire among Egyptian voters now to give other forces than the establishment the run of the land.

However, the Brotherhood may move without abandon toward the introduction of a full-blown Islamic state. That would be a nightmare for Washington. For the past half-century, the entire U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Egypt has been shaped by one overriding concern: creating a neighborhood environment for Israel that is conducive to, and will not existentially threaten, Israel’s existence.

That is certainly a legitimate goal. The trouble with that strategy, however, is that it has come at a price. The United States is not only perceived by most Egyptians as being Israel’s handmaiden, but is also viewed as having engaged in lots of unsavory dealings with Egypt’s military and the Mubarak regime along the way.

The Egyptian military, much like Pakistan’s, is not just a state within a state, but a highly successful economic national and international business enterprise with complex and highly lucrative dealings. In that context, it is understandable why most Egyptians — often desperately poor — despise this parallel state.

A successful career in Egypt’s military usually ends up as a very lucrative position in the “private” sector, providing the recipient upon their retirement from the brass ranks with what, by Egyptian standards, are outlandish salaries. The price of admission is to have been a successful and always pliable military officer.

That entire parallel state structure was not just tolerated by the United States, but actively supported by it. This did not just happen via the likely deviation of funds transferred from the U.S. federal budget to the Egyptian military. Money, after all, is fungible.

No wonder, then, that the Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of currency with the population at large. This would be the case even without the tough economic and politically disorienting times that Egypt is currently embroiled in.

The Brotherhood surely has its dark side as well, but — in the eyes of the Egyptian people — that doesn’t seem as glaring as how all those mini-pharaohs enriched themselves.

As regards Egypt’s future, the signs are ominous. The high military court casts itself not just as the patron saint of the country, but increasingly as a tough-minded, constitution-giving monarch that knows what is best for all the people living under its tutelage.

It is hard to escape the realization that the ways in which it seeks to steer around the shoals of potential extremism are at least designed to attract a tacit lot of support, spiritual and otherwise, from the security establishment in Washington. Meanwhile, the U.S. capital officially maintains a stance of public indignation — and hence plausible deniability on all fronts.

U.S. strategists are quite happy to see that their country, for once, has played all its cards right in terms of having what seems like a fully hedged position. It acts both as a promoter of the democratization process as well as a background force behind the military’s unceasing efforts at bringing about the quasi-restoration of the previous regime.

Editor’s note: Versions of this article have appeared in Turkey’s Radikal on July 4 and in the China Daily on July 13.


There is a palpable desire among Egyptian voters to give other forces than the establishment the run of the land.

The Egyptian military, much like Pakistan's, is not just a state within a state, but a highly successful economic national and international business enterprise.

For the past half-century, U.S. strategy toward Egypt has been shaped by one concern: creating a safe neighborhood for Israel's existence.