Voice

They Hate Us, They Really Hate Us

When anti-Americanism is this popular in Egypt, Washington should stay as far away as it can.

This week, Hosni Mubarak's old media boss, Abdel Latif el-Menawy, published an astonishing essay on the website of the Saudi-funded, Emirati-based satellite television station Al Arabiya. Menawy described a wild conspiracy in which the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, directed Muslim Brotherhood snipers to murder Egyptian soldiers.

It would be easy to dismiss the ravings of an old Mubarak hand if they were not almost tame compared with the wild rumors and allegations across much of the Egyptian media and public. Even longtime observers of Egyptian rhetoric have been taken aback by the vitriol and sheer lunacy of the current wave of anti-American rhetoric. The streets have been filled with fliers, banners, posters, and graffiti denouncing President Barack Obama for supporting terrorism and featuring Photoshopped images of Obama with a Muslim-y beard or bearing Muslim Brotherhood colors.

A big Tahrir Square banner declaring love for the American people alongside hatred for Obama rings somewhat false given the fierce, simultaneous campaign against CNN and American journalists. The rhetoric spans the political spectrum: veteran leftist George Ishaq (Patterson "is an evil lady"), the Salafi Front (calling for demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy against foreign interference), the reckless secularist TV host Tawfik Okasha (whipping up xenophobic hatred), leaders of the Tamarod campaign (refusing to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns because the United States "supports terrorism"), and Brotherhood leaders (blaming the United States for the military coup).

The tsunami of anti-American rhetoric swamping Egypt has been justified as a legitimate response to Washington's supposed support for the now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. There is no doubt that many Egyptians on both sides are indeed enraged with U.S. policy toward Egypt. Nor is there any doubting the intensity of the anti-Brotherhood fever to which Washington has so effectively been linked. Nor, finally, could anyone really disagree that the United States has failed to effectively engage with or explain itself to the intensely polarized and mobilized new Egyptian public.

Still, there is clearly more going on than just a response to current U.S. policies. Hostile media campaigns and anti-American sentiments long predate the rise of Mohamed Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak's regime made an art form of using the state media to bash America while pliantly going along with American policies. Those legacies have left enduring habits of political thought. Today's rhetoric and methods feel eerily familiar, even with their turbocharged energy and distinctive tropes. The overall effect is High Mubarakism, in which state and "independent" media churn up anti-Americanism, anti-Islamism, and extreme nationalism to legitimate the state's rule.

What's new is the intensity of the anti-Brotherhood views around which the campaign is built. This cements a widespread acceptance of these populist messages and methods among many Egyptians who would have angrily scorned them under Mubarak. The polarizing dynamics are fueled, at least among the politically engaged public, by jingoistic media and by the amplifying, accelerating effects of social media. A handful of liberal voices and veteran revolutionaries are pushing back on this trend, but they are swimming against a fierce tide for now. They will likely seem prescient should those activists who try to challenge the new government find themselves targeted through use of the same discourse, just as they were under Mubarak and by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in 2011.

Egypt's resurgent nationalism offers a potent lesson in the darker side of the new Arab public sphere. The proliferation of satellite television and social media has undeniably given a new platform to individual voices, protest movements, and contentious public debate. But the same platform is equally available to regimes, to illiberal forces of both Islamist and secularist varieties, and to populists of all description. The new media environment has proved ideal for the rapid, unchecked spread of rumors and allegations, for the enforcement of the new party line, and for the mobilization of rage against alleged enemies of the state -- whether American, Brotherhood, Palestinian, Syrian, or Turkish.

While this virulent Egyptian populism has many targets, Washington remains a distinctly valued target. Denouncing the United States is politically useful to every Egyptian faction. The SCAF, like Mubarak, finds anti-Americanism useful in masking its strong relationship with Washington. Secular elites and felool ("remnants" of Mubarak's regime) find it useful in deflecting attention from their own return to grace. The Muslim Brotherhood finds it useful in returning to the movement's own anti-American comfort zone. Anti-Brotherhood activists find it useful as a way of appealing to nationalist public opinion to justify support for the coup. (Leaders of the anti-Morsy Tamarod campaign have been notably enthusiastic about this extreme state-nationalist agenda.)

The anti-American rhetoric that has always flowed freely through the Egyptian media has been mirrored in public opinion. Again, this long predates Egypt's revolution or the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government. In May 2008, only 4 percent of Egyptians agreed that the "United States will allow people in this region to fashion their own political future as they see fit without direct U.S. influence," while only 6 percent approved of the leadership in Washington, according to polling by Gallup. This changed very briefly after Obama's election and his June 2009 speech at Cairo University, as approval of the United States in Gallup polling peaked in mid-2009 at 37 percent. But that number crashed below even George W. Bush levels within a year. In late 2011 (well before Morsy or the Muslim Brotherhood took power), over 70 percent of Egyptians opposed U.S. economic aid to Egypt. Back when the SCAF (not Morsy) aggressively prosecuted (and the media demonized) U.S.-funded NGOs, virtually nobody -- including the NGOs -- was willing to stand up and defend such aid. Few Egyptians think they will suffer politically by bashing America.

Washington has clearly struggled to respond effectively to this hostile, polarized, and intensely mobilized arena. It isn't clear that any alternative course would have been received more positively, given the public mood. In my view, Washington was right to focus on the democratic process rather than supporting individual groups, whether the Brotherhood or secular activists. It was clearly right to give the Muslim Brotherhood the chance to govern when it won elections. It was right to try to keep a low profile and not be seen as trying to shape Egyptian political outcomes. But Washington also made many mistakes, of course, such as being overly accommodating in public toward the SCAF in the first year and a half of the transition and toward President Morsy when he took inflammatory and anti-democratic measures. And the Obama administration consistently failed to communicate these principles in a way compelling to the Egyptian public.

For many months -- particularly after Morsy's November constitutional power grab -- a wide range of Egyptian and American analysts had urged the administration to speak out more clearly in defense of liberal values and push the Morsy government harder in public on human rights and tolerance. This would have been the right public stance. But nothing short of full-throated endorsement of one side's position would likely have been heard amid the din of Egypt's polarized politics. It's easy to see why Washington's attempt at a low profile and evenhandedness managed to antagonize both sides. There's little tolerance for those in the middle when every Egyptian political trend has adopted the classic Bush position of "you're either with us or against us."

Typically, this would be the time for me to call for renewed public diplomacy to try to combat anti-American misconceptions and convince Egyptians of American intentions. But let's be real. American efforts to push back against the most outlandish allegations are certainly worthwhile, but have obvious limitations. No, American battleships are not moving toward Egypt to launch an invasion. No, Ambassador Patterson did not conspire with the Muslim Brotherhood or offer to sell the pyramids to Israel. No, Obama is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and isn't going to be impeached over secret payments to them. All well and good, but entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved.

What about the broader arsenal of public diplomacy? Once upon a time, the expensive American Arabic-language satellite television Alhurra was supposed to be the kind of news source that would break through such a hostile media fog. But as has been the case since its launch, it has made virtually no difference or impact on the Egyptian debate. Nor does it appear that the much-touted digital diplomacy, whether Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, has made many inroads into a public debate dominated naturally enough by Egyptians themselves. When such online accounts have made news, it has usually been for the wrong reason.

A much broader, more vigorous effort to engage publicly and privately across all Egyptian political groups and segments of the population in the last few years is always good advice. Now isn't really the moment, though. Accusations of having met with U.S. officials are once again a valued currency in Egyptian politics. Efforts to engage either with the U.S. Embassy or with high-level visitors like Deputy Secretary Burns just give the invitees the opportunity to grandstand by ostentatiously refusing to meet them.

Public diplomacy isn't going to solve America's Egypt problem, I'm afraid. This emphatically does not mean that Washington should ignore Egyptian voices or give up on efforts at broader, deeper engagement, though. Washington should pay close attention to what it is hearing from the Egyptian public, even while recognizing the politics driving those messages. It is never a good idea for U.S. policy to hunker down, convinced by its own messaging or dismissive of widely circulating ideas or critiques.

The overwhelming lesson of the last few years should be that publics matter, in all their variety and internal contradictions, even if it is difficult to predict exactly how or where their impact will manifest. Public diplomacy should be seen here as a long-term strategic investment, not as a quick fix. The Obama administration should certainly engage more broadly with a wide cross-section of Egyptian opinion and craft a more compelling narrative to make sense of its seemingly contradictory policies. It should do so even as it understands that little it says or does will make any immediate difference in Egypt's highly polarized, intensely politicized public sphere, where anti-Americanism is a surefire and cost-free political winner.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Money to Meddle

Can the wealthy powerbrokers of the Persian Gulf create the Egypt they want?

Many Egyptians furiously contest whether the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsy should be considered a revolution or a coup. But the fiercely anti-revolutionary monarchs of the Gulf have no such doubts. Within days of Morsy's fall, three conservative Gulf Cooperation Council states pledged $12 billion in support to the new regime. It's pretty clear what the counter-revolutionary Gulf monarchs expect for their generosity, and it's not democracy. The conservative Gulf states would like to buy a new Mubarakism and a final end to all of this Arab uprising unpleasantness. But they are unlikely to succeed.

The $12 billion in support came from three members of the GCC's conservative axis: Saudi Arabia, the core of the anti-revolutionary monarchical bloc, pledged $5 billion; the fiercely anti-Islamist and anti-democracy United Arab Emirates pledged $3 billion; and Kuwait, traditionally more liberal but now locked in a debilitating political crisis over the powers of its Parliament, promised $4 billion. Those cash infusions come on top of years of political and media support for the anti-Brotherhood forces in Egypt.

This massive financial support follows on, and replaces, billions of dollars given by Qatar to the previous Muslim Brotherhood government. It is likely to prove equally ineffectual in delivering the desired payoffs, though. As Doha discovered to its dismay, money will buy only temporary love and symbolic returns. Whatever Gulf paymasters might hope, the new Egyptian government will be forced to respond to its own intensely turbulent, polarized, and dysfunctional domestic political arena. No outside player -- not Washington, Riyadh, Doha, or Tehran -- can really hope to effectively shape the new Egyptian politics for long.

Many, if not most, of those who demanded Morsy's departure did so to save Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and restore a democratic transition, not to bring back the old regime. Nothing in Egypt's recent history suggests that the new government will be able to easily pacify its intensely mobilized public or that any external power will be able to control its politics. General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi's "neo-SCAF" may appear to be much better at the Egyptian political game than his bungling predecessors, but its muddled transitional roadmap looks as poorly conceived as the one the military failed so badly at implementing in 2011. Indeed, as anti-Muslim Brotherhood rage fades as a unifying force, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may find themselves taking over Qatar's role as the external force blamed for ongoing economic and political failure.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia had multiple reasons for supporting the anti-Morsy mobilization. Their deep antipathy towards and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood was a primary motivation. The UAE has been leading the charge against the Brotherhood at home and across the region, for years. The recently concluded trial of 94 alleged Brotherhood activists is only the tip of the iceberg. Dubai's controversial police chief Dhahi Khalfan Tamim has been sounding the alarm bells for years, while Emirati media have been flooded with anti-Brotherhood reporting and commentary.

Saudi hostility to the Brotherhood is driven not by any devotion to secularism, of course, but by the fierce competition between the Brotherhood and its own Salafi Islamist networks. Riyadh seeks leadership over Islamist political networks for both domestic and regional reasons. The Saudi regime worked for years to co-opt the Brotherhood-inclined "Sahwa" Islamist networks that drove political dissent in the early 1990s -- and it still fears their remobilization (for example, the highly publicized open letter by Sahwa leader Salman al-Odeh warning the government against ignoring public discontent). Saudi support for the jihad in Syria is likely driven in part by the same concerns as its anti-Brotherhood campaign. Just as the Afghan jihad of the 1980s redirected Islamist energies away from home following the traumatic seizure of the Great Mosque of Mecca, the Syrian jihad focuses Islamist energies abroad, working with rather than against Riyadh's leadership. In Egypt, as in Syria, the Saudis don't oppose Islamism, just competing Islamists.

The rivalry with Qatar also clearly drove the calculations of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The cooperation between these GCC states in the early days of the Arab uprising was always clearly the exception. Their rivalry and mutual disdain runs deep, and Doha's rivals have moved rapidly and aggressively to take advantage of the departure of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim. What happened in Doha is clearly not staying in Doha. Morsy's fall represents a serious setback for Qatar's regional policy, but not the only one. Qatar's men in the Syrian opposition have been sidelined, for now. Its leading Islamist figure, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has capitulated to the Saudi anti-Shiite line, and now rumors are flying that he has been expelled from Doha. Meanwhile, the Saudis are moving to re-establish their traditional domination of the Arab media, with Al-Jazeera floundering and the influential (allegedly Qatari-backed) Arab populist editor Abdel Bari Atwan suddenly departing the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi

Most broadly, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the chance to finally put the nail in the coffin of the detested Arab uprisings by re-establishing the old order in the most important of the transitional states. They were horrified by Mubarak's fall, by the demonstration effect across the region, and by America's seeming embrace of the uprisings. From the start, they worked to divert, prevent, or control the Arab uprisings: helping to crush the uprising in Bahrain, sending massive financial assistance to less wealthy fellow monarchs in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco, and seeking to control the transition process in Yemen. Their media, in contrast to Al-Jazeera's celebratory coverage, tended to emphasize the negative consequences of the Arab uprisings, the perfidy of Islamists, the carnage of Syria and Libya, and Egypt's political chaos.

A successful Egyptian democratic transition, with or without the Muslim Brotherhood, represented the greatest threat to this vision of conservative restoration. Such an Egypt would offer a powerful example of the possibility of democratic change through peaceful uprising, and would likely pursue an independent foreign policy which would challenge the Saudi-backed regional order. Gulf leaders no doubt calculated that Egypt would return to its rightful place in the official Arab order. But their vision of Egypt's political reset is not to 1954, no matter how much they want to see the Brotherhood crushed. They would like to prevent, not encourage, the emergence of a new form of Gamal Abdel Nasser's independent foreign policy that could challenge their own. A reset to the late 2000s, with Egypt playing a subservient supporting role to Saudi diplomacy, will suffice.

What might this look like? The blueprint for the "new Arab Awakening" presented this week in Foreign Policy by UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash suggests a useful outline. This new Awakening for which he urges support contains no mention of democracy, popular mobilization, or media freedoms. The focus instead is entirely on countering Islamic "extremists," economic development, and competent technocratic government (and a token wave toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). There is nothing in this which could not describe the agenda of Gamal Mubarak's National Democratic Party circa 2010. Or, to be glib, the new Arab awakening means "go back to sleep or the Muslim Brotherhood will get you."

For now, anti-Muslim Brotherhood rage has allowed the new regime to avoid the contradictions between revolution and counter-revolution. Amazingly, the SCAF has somehow managed to persuade Egypt that Washington's main ally in Egypt has been the Muslim Brotherhood and not, as has always been true, the military. State media along with many of the new "independent" media have eagerly leaped to the task, flooding the zone with denunciations of Brotherhood "terror" and rewriting recent history to glorify the role of the armed forces and police. A Bahrain-style campaign on social media blasts all would-be bridge builders and moderates as Brotherhood sympathizers and traitors. The streets are festooned with posters attacking Al-Jazeera and Tamarod banners declare "Obama supports terrorism." The Brotherhood's defiant response, and the support it has received from international Islamist networks and from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, feed this polarization.

None of this is likely to work over even the short term, though. Mubarakism failed for a reason, and the new version is unlikely to fare better. Anti-Islamism will have a short-half life as a legitimating formula for the new leadership. While the Gulf states and the old elites may have taken advantage of the uprising against Morsy, they neither created nor controlled popular anger. A significant portion of the June 30 protest wave wants continuing revolution and the building of democracy, not Gulf tutelage or the restoration of the pre-2011 status quo. The mobilized Egyptian public will have little patience when the new leaders again fail to restore order, fix the economy, or find political consensus. The new infusion of cash from the Gulf will stave off disaster for a while, but will no more likely fix the massive underlying problems than did the Qatari support, while subsidy reforms or other needed measures will galvanize public outrage.

Washington is now more trapped than ever between its professed hopes for democratic change in the region and its alliance with the anti-democratic regimes of the Gulf. Washington seems likely to accept the new realities and to try to save face by urging the Gulf to join it in pressuring the SCAF to rapidly restore democratic rule ... as if that were a shared goal. The United States probably should suspend its aid to Egypt, as is legally required, but the Gulf assistance mitigates any influence which such a threat might offer. The administration's intensive consultations in recent days with the Egyptian military and with Gulf leaders suggests that Washington will find it easier to work with the new-old constellation of power.

But it would be a mistake to easily go along. July 3 might have been more coup than revolution, but the massive mobilization was very real. The Arab uprisings are not over, no matter how much the Gulf monarchies might wish that they were. A neo-Mubarakist restoration will no more bring stability to Egypt than did the pre-revolutionary Mubarak regime. There is no solution to Egypt's problems without overcoming the country's polarization and establishing meaningful democracy, neither of which are high on the agenda of Egypt's new Gulf backers.

MIDO AHMED/AFP/Getty Images