The List

7 Ways America Can Get Its Mojo Back in Egypt

It won't be easy, but it's not impossible.

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsy is trying to get down to business, but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) isn't making things easy. The Muslim Brotherhood leader's newly appointed cabinet keeps holdovers from the previous cabinet in top positions, which suggests that the military junta is preventing Morsy from radically reshaping Egyptian policy, at least for the time being. Indeed, the power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF continues to define Egypt's post-Mubarak transition -- and it could be years before either emerges victorious.

This is a messy political environment for the United States to try to improve its relationship with the Egyptian people, and it is not going well. Just last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's motorcade was showered with rotten vegetables upon her visit to Egypt, and thousands-strong crowds protested her appearances in both Cairo and Alexandria.

Of course, anti-American sentiment in Egypt is nothing new. Ordinary Egyptians have long objected to various aspects of U.S. foreign policy, from Washington's support for Israel to its global counterterrorism campaigns, and former President Hosni Mubarak's regime stoked anti-Western anxieties to divert attention from its own misdeeds.

But the protests that confronted Clinton were new in one important sense: Christians and non-Islamists -- historically two of Egypt's most pro-American demographic groups -- organized them. And for this reason, U.S. policymakers fear that anti-American sentiment is not only worsening, but broadening beyond the Islamists and Arab nationalists who have traditionally opposed U.S. policy in Egypt. With its initial attempts at building bridges in Cairo having backfired, President Barack Obama's administration is looking for new ways to improve America's image in Egypt.

Here are seven ideas to get things started:

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1. Engage non-Islamist parties

One of the most visible changes in Washington's post-Mubarak policy has been its engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood. This shift was born of necessity: The Brotherhood's organizational strength made its political emergence practically inevitable, and Egypt's strategic importance meant that sidelining the Brotherhood was no longer a viable option.

Yet the administration's single-minded focus on building ties with the Brotherhood has alienated non-Islamist parties, which include members who were already wary of the United States due to its longtime support for Hosni Mubarak. "When any person of the USA comes to Egypt, they just visit the government, the SCAF, and only the Muslim Brotherhood," Basem Kamel, an Egyptian Social Democratic Party parliamentarian and former revolutionary youth activist, told me. "But they never ask to meet any of us."

Meanwhile, the speed with which the United States went from dodging the Brotherhood to working with it has fueled conspiracy theories that the United States has rigged Egyptian politics to facilitate the Brotherhood's rise. On the basis of these rumors, many non-Islamist parties participated in the July protests against Clinton's visit.

To be sure, conspiracy theories are an unfortunate reality in Egyptian politics, and there is little the United States can do to prevent them entirely. But by casting a wider net in engaging Egyptian political leaders, the administration can avoid the impression that it is playing favorites. And it makes little sense for the United States to turn its back on non-Islamist parties, especially those that are more favorably disposed toward U.S. interests and values than the historically anti-Western, theocratic Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood seems ascendant at the moment, and it is easy to imagine how it would remain Egypt's most powerful group for years to come. But Mubarak's sudden ouster last year should caution Washington against betting on any one party, no matter how dominant it may seem. Egypt's revolution is still percolating, and the best policy for Washington is using broad engagement to spread its risk.

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2. Talk about the Camp David Accords as primarily an Egyptian interest, not as an American one.

Egyptians' most common complaint about American foreign policy in the Middle East is that the United States is "biased" toward Israel, and that U.S. policy is aimed at keeping Israel strong and Arabs weak. They therefore view Egypt's peace treaty with Israel as something that was imposed on them for Israel's benefit -- a favor they were forced to do for the United States and Israel. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood has frequently sought excuses for ridding itself of the Camp David Accords, such as by proposing to put the accords to a referendum or accusing Israel of somehow violating the treaty.

Egyptian audiences need to be told very bluntly: The Camp David Accords are not primarily an American interest, but an Egyptian one. The treaty has prevented war between you and your much stronger neighbor for more than 30 years, and saved innumerable Egyptian lives. The treaty enabled Egypt to grow its economy after decades of conflict, and a breakdown in the treaty will prevent Egypt from getting the international investment it sorely needs. After all, what sane company will invest in a country that isn't firmly attached to a peace agreement with its much stronger neighbor? More importantly, if you break the treaty, the odds of Egyptians dying in renewed conflict rises considerably. That would be bad for American interests -- but you, Egyptians, will feel the pain first and foremost.

The key point should be that American support for Egyptian-Israeli peace has given Egypt a shot at a prosperous, stable future. Far from being an American imposition, it is an Egyptian life-saver.

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3. Frame engagement with Islamists in terms of interests, not in terms of "supporting democracy."

Washington's engagement with Islamists was, and remains, a pragmatic decision. Simply put, Islamists' political victories made them necessary partners if the United States hoped to achieve its interests in Egypt -- though, to be sure, this remains a big "if."

Yet, rather than framing its policy in terms of narrow strategic interests, the Obama administration has occasionally dressed up its outreach to Islamists -- and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular -- as support for democracy. For example, during his visit to Egypt in January, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns repeatedly referred to the Muslim Brotherhood as a "democratic party that is committed to democratic principles." At other points, administration officials have explained this policy by portraying Islamists as progressives, such as intelligence chief James Clapper's comment in February 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood is a "heterogenous" and "largely secular" organization.

The problem with these types of statements is that they are patently false. Islamists' call for establishing sharia as the source of all Egyptian legislation makes them theocratic -- not democratic, and certainly not secular. Brotherhood political leaders have been quite clear that they will brook no opposition in this regard. "It's not allowed for Christians to come and say that the sharia is wrong," Alexandria parliamentarian Saber Abouel Fotouh told me during a December interview. "They are not specialists."

Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated repeatedly in recent months that it is not dedicated to democratic principles. During the presidential run-off election, for instance, the Carter Center reported that the Brotherhood used its vast social services networks to buy votes. Prior to being disbanded in June, the Brotherhood-dominated parliament was investigating a non-Islamist parliamentarian for insulting SCAF chief Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn't have the luxury of dealing exclusively with democrats, which is why it partnered with Mubarak for 30 years and will try to work with the Brotherhood now. But pretending that non-democratic leaders are otherwise makes the United States look gullible, and further convinces real Egyptian democrats that we have put all our eggs in the Brotherhood's basket. A better public diplomacy strategy would explain U.S. cooperation with Egypt's newly elected leaders in terms of mutual interests, but also communicate concerns about those new leaders' restrictive views on civil liberties.

We should further encourage non-Islamists to continue fighting for a more secular Egyptian future. This was, after all, a major theme of last year's Tahrir Square protests -- which the Islamists joined only belatedly.

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4. Speak out more forcefully for minority rights.

One of the most alarming aspects of the protests that greeted Clinton's most recent visit to Cairo was the heavy presence of Christians demonstrators, as well as Coptic leaders' refusal to meet with her. After all, Egyptian Christians have historically been among the most pro-American communities in Egypt -- in part because of U.S. policy that had previously mostly sidelined Islamists, and in part due to America's Christian heritage.

Christian mistrust of Washington, however, emerged shortly after last year's revolt, when the Obama administration responded weakly to a wave of anti-Christian violence that included church burnings and sectarian clashes. By March 2011, frustration with Washington's silence was a common theme of Coptic demonstrations held at Egypt's state media headquarters in downtown Cairo. "Obama doesn't care about all of these horrible things that are happening to Christians," a protester told me at the time. "Obama only cares about Muslims. ... Bush was willing to defend Christians, but Obama won't say a word in our defense."

Christians' feelings of betrayal deepened in October, when the White House responded to a brutal military assault on the mostly Christian demonstrators outside the same state media building, which left 25 dead, by meekly calling for "restraint on all sides." And in the aftermath of successive Islamist electoral victories, the Obama administration's overwhelming focus on engaging the Muslim Brotherhood -- often at the expense of engaging other segments of Egyptian society -- has deepened their alienation.

Given Washington's low popularity in Egypt, the United States can hardly afford to turn off one of the few historically pro-American communities. The Obama administration can begin winning Egyptian Christians back by speaking out more forcefully in support of minority rights. In this vein, the administration should argue that protecting minorities is not only a moral imperative but a strategic necessity, since Egypt is unlikely to attract much needed international investment if Egyptian Christians continue to flee the country.  The administration must therefore communicate to the Brotherhood very clearly that, having won an election, it is now the Brotherhood's responsibility to make sure that Christians feel safe in their country, and that they will be judged accordingly.

The administration can also improve its relationship with Egyptian Christians by responding more aggressively to anti-Christian violence -- such as a recent episode in the village of Dahshur, in which a Muslim mob attacked a Christian launderer who accidently burned a Muslim customer's shirt while ironing it, catalyzing strife that forced 120 Christian families to flee. At a minimum, the administration should issue strong public denunciations of these attacks, rather than falling back on flaccid calls for "restraint." The U.S. government might also consider sending emissaries to these communities -- and to the hospitals where injured Christians are being treated -- so as to communicate that Christian suffering in Egypt is not going unheard.

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5. Talk loudly about the concrete benefits of U.S. aid to Egypt.

Egyptians frequently complain that Washington uses Egypt as a geostrategic pawn, and that U.S. policy has therefore done little to address the needs of the Egyptian people. "America just looks out for its own interests," Ahmed Abdel Salam, a Muslim Brother, told me in Tahrir Square in June, shortly after Mohamed Morsi was elected Egypt's next president. "We wish they would deal with us as a country now."

But the fact is that U.S. policy has done a great deal to help Egyptians. American economic aid, which totals approximately $250 million per year, has built schools, hospitals, roads, phone systems, and water treatment plants, among many other social services. Moreover, U.S.-brokered Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs), within which Egyptian companies are granted duty free access to U.S. markets so long as 10.5 percent of their components come from Israel, have been a boon for Egypt's economy. The QIZs employ approximately 150,000 Egyptians, account for one-third of all Egyptian exports, and earn Egypt nearly $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

These are the tangible benefits of their relationship with the United States that Egyptians should know about -- and which American diplomats should not be shy about highlighting. Just as Egyptians know that the Cairo Opera House was built by the Japanese and the Metro was built by the French, they should know that many of their social institutions, as well as a key economic engine, came courtesy of the United States.

By emphasizing the extent to which U.S. aid to Egypt has benefited ordinary Egyptians, policymakers can communicate the true depths of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. Our partnership, they should say, is not only strategic, but societal.

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6. The U.S. Embassy in Egypt needs an Arabic-language Twitter account, with an actual face attached to the handle.

The U.S. Embassy in Egypt made a noble foray into social media when it established a Twitter account, @USEmbassyCairo, in September 2009. The account, which is managed by a member of the embassy's press office, serves three useful purposes: It publicizes American diplomatic news, responds to queries from other Twitter users about U.S. policy, and combats falsehoods about America's role in Egypt (such as, for example, the notion that the United States aided the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories).

There is, however, much room for improvement in the embassy's social media presence. First, the embassy's English-only tweeting habit -- though occasionally interrupted by Arabic retweets -- substantially limits its outreach to the broader Egyptian public. It particularly undermines the embassy's efforts to address anti-American conspiracy theories that spread quickly among Arabic-language Twitter users, as well as in the Arabic-language press. The first step should be to open an Arabic-language account, which will allow the embassy to reach a far wider Egyptian audience than it does now.

Second, the embassy's Twitter usage would be more valuable if it attached a face to its Twitter handle, rather than simple tweeting as the institution itself. Online engagement is most effective when conducted by named individuals rather than brands or organizations, and the Twitter accounts of foreign governments are likely to feel especially inauthentic. Putting an actual diplomat's name on the embassy's Twitter account would make its tweets seem more personal, and enhance the embassy's ability to connect with Egyptian web users.

Twitter

7. Don't over-obsess about America's image in Egypt.

Policymakers are right to be concerned about America's image in Egypt. While Egypt's revolution is ongoing, the uprising has already produced a more open political culture that has made Egyptian public opinion more influential than ever before. But U.S. officials should also be cognizant about the limits of what public diplomacy can achieve.

Anti-Americanism has deep roots within Egyptian political culture, and -- even more than a year and a half after Mubarak's ouster -- it still features prominently in the state-run press. Moreover, the Egyptian public's disagreements with Washington on many matters cannot be papered over by even the most savvy public relations campaign.

For this reason, the rule of thumb of U.S. public diplomacy in Egypt should be "do no harm." If diplomats can avoid alienating our allies within Egypt and explain the benefits of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, they can at least prevent America's unpopularity from growing.

-/AFP/Getty Images 

The List

Syria's DIY Revolt

Syrian rebels are massively outgunned by Bashar al-Assad's regime. But as Assad's army bears down on Aleppo, it may find the armed opposition is more than ready.

"We are using bullets that cost $3," lamented a Syrian rebel commander, "and they are coming with bombs that cost thousands."

That may be so, but Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have used those $3 bullets to bring President Bashar al-Assad's regime to the brink of collapse. Over the past week, they have seized control of several districts in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and economic hub. Now, as Assad musters his forces to retake the city, both sides are bracing for what could be a pivotal battle in the 16-month revolt.

How did Syria's rebels get so far with so little? As their strength has grown, they have used heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and they have even captured tanks to inflict damage on the Syrian military. As a largely improvised guerrilla force, they have also cobbled together some strange do-it-yourself (DIY) weapons systems, designed to hurl whatever explosives are on hand back at their enemies.

These weapons reflect the FSA's need for rapid movement, and they have at times proved effective in urban combat environments. Whether they will be enough for the rebels to repel the Syrian military in the battle of Aleppo, however, remains to be seen. Here is just some of the military hardware that Syria's opposition fighters are using against Assad.

 

TRUCK-MOUNTED WEAPONS

When the FSA does use vehicles, it prefers to use trucks mounted with Soviet-era DShK heavy machine guns or ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons. Both are used widely by the Syrian military for anti-aircraft and fire support roles. The 23 mm ZU-23-2 can fire both high-explosive rounds and armor-piercing rounds, which are capable of penetrating the armor of the Syrian military's BMP infantry fighting vehicles. Although the smaller 12.7 mm round of the DShK -- nicknamed the Dushka, or "sweetie" in Russian -- is little threat to armored vehicles, it does pose a threat to the helicopters used by the Syrian air force.

Here we see a video that purports to show a DShK firing at a helicopter in the northern town of Azaz. How effective DShK fire is against aircraft at that range is questionable, especially without the detachable anti-aircraft sight that many of the DShKs in Syria appear to be missing. Nonetheless, the FSA boasts of having brought down helicopters using DShK fire, as these men from Azaz claim. This video claims to show a helicopter downed by rebels in Syria.


 

In his June report from the northern town of Kafer Zaita, journalist Austin Tice described how speedy truck-mounted weapons could gain an advantage over slower-moving tanks. In this video, reportedly filmed in Azaz, a truck mounted ZU-23-2 fires at a target and then speeds off to avoid retaliation.

These weapons are also useful for harassing the Syrian regime's air power, which the regime has seemingly relied on more frequently in recent days. In one battle, Tice described how a rebel commander attempted to draw helicopters away from a rebel force by engaging it with a DShK. "One helicopter gave chase, pursuing the black truck into the open countryside and expending significant machine-gun fire and at least three rockets," he wrote. "The truck traveled about six miles to the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, arriving unscathed before hiding in a garage."

 

 

TANKS

The FSA has captured tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles from defeated or defected Syrian military forces. This video, for example, claims to show the rebels in command of seven vehicles captured during fighting in the western city of Talbiseh. While earlier reports have claimed that armored vehicles such as these were used in operations by the FSA -- seemingly more acts of opportunity than part of planned assaults -- their use in combat has been sparing.

Video evidence has emerged in the last few weeks that the FSA is using Russian T-series main battle tanks. The Syrian army is estimated to have around 5,000 T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks, which generally employ a variety of high-explosive, fragmentation, and armor-piercing rounds.

Tanks can support infantry by destroying fortified positions, but in the rare cases in which the FSA has used them, it seems they were used for surprise attacks on military checkpoints and bases. In this video reportedly from the city of Rastan, an urban center close to Talbiseh and the city of Homs, one of the brigades belonging to the al-Farouq Battalion shows off three captured T-62 tanks. But the brigade is merely using the tanks here for an impromptu military parade: Why are we not seeing these weapons used more frequently in combat?

 

The answer is simple: Rebel armor is a high-priority target for Assad's air and ground forces. Without the ability to defend from air attacks, tanks become sitting ducks for Assad's helicopters, and they are unable to escape Assad's ground forces as easily as infantry or truck-mounted weapons. This video shows a very rare example of a T-62 tank, which rebels say they captured during an attack on a house occupied by pro-Assad militiamen, being used to attack Assad's forces.

But a second video, which appears to show the same T-62, shows the risks inherent in using tanks: Shortly after it fires on an enemy target (near the 6:00 mark), it appears to be destroyed by return fire, killing the crew members who aren't lucky enough to leap out at the right moment. 


 

ROADSIDE BOMBS

Recent months have also seen the Syrian rebels add another tool to their arsenal: IEDs. The above video claims to show rebels using a roadside bomb to attack a tank on July 21 in the southern town of Tafas.

Like the guerrillas who fought against the U.S. military in Iraq before them, Syria's rebels have discovered the lethal potential of these weapons. IEDs have allowed the FSA to limit the Syrian army's ground operations, which has been reflected in the increased reports of helicopters being used by the Syrian armed forces. "The bomb [IEDs] is not only essential; it is a main part of our success," one rebel commander told New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers recently.

 

 

Soldiers being transported in trucks are extremely vulnerable to IED attacks, which may explain why there's frequently footage of tanks operating without infantry in narrow streets. The above video claims to show an attack on two trucks full of pro-Assad militiamen known as shabiha in the western city of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon.

 

Lack of infantry support, however, merely causes another problem for the Syrian military -- it leaves the tanks vulnerable to RPG attacks. This footage from Aleppo purports to show FSA fighters exploiting that lack of infantry support to disable a T-72 tank with an RPG.

The FSA has had access to RPGs since the beginning of the armed uprising, making it the rebels' dominant anti-tank weapon. The occasional M72 LAW and AT-3 missile -- anti-tank weapons developed in the 1960s by the United States and Russia, respectively -- also make an appearance.

 

 

DO-IT-YOURSELF WEAPON SYSTEMS

When all else fails, Syrian rebels are manufacturing their own weapons to combat Assad's military. These DIY weapons have been less of a feature in Syria than in the Libyan civil war, where rocket pods welded to the back of trucks appeared to be everywhere you looked. But they're still present, ranging from the incredibly basic -- such as a giant slingshot used to launch explosives-filled bottles -- to the more complex. In the above video (at the 2:40 mark), Syrian rebels appear to commandeer a fuel truck to fashion a homemade flamethrower, which they use to set alight a building.

Some of these weapons systems even have their own workshops dedicated to producing ammunition for them. This video shows what appears to be one of the more elaborate examples -- a homemade multibarrel rocket-launcher system. Here rebels make rockets from the remains of RPGs and fill them with homemade explosives.

The upcoming battle between the Syrian army and the FSA in Aleppo will be a test for both sides. The FSA has had plenty of time to prepare IEDs and ambushes for Assad's forces, and the lack of infantry support for Syrian armor could result in a massive number of tank losses. We may also start to see some of the armored vehicles captured by the FSA in earlier fighting come into play.

For the FSA, it might not be a matter of winning in Aleppo, but of doing the most damage before retreating, as it has done in the past. But if the Syrian army continues to fight as it has been, it's likely to suffer heavy losses before retaking the city.