Voice

As Good As It Gets

Why Washington's policy toward Cairo is pretty spot on (except for a few things).

In March 2011, Sunni Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, swept over the bridge into Bahrain to help crush the predominantly Shiite but democratic and reform-oriented protest movement. The wide-ranging campaign of sectarian repression that followed destroyed a U.S.-facilitated reconciliation mission between the Bahraini crown prince and the leading opposition parties.

Washington then watched as the inevitable unfolded in a key Gulf ally -- repression with impunity, persistent instability, rampant sectarianism, the likely permanent delegitimization of the regime, and a denunciation of the U.S. role by both sides. Its failure to respond defined American hypocrisy about the Arab uprisings in the eyes of many across the region, and helped give a green light to autocrats to crack down on their challengers. More than two years later, Bahrain's continued street protests and growing radicalism suggests how little the crackdown served the cause of stability.

While events in Cairo are of course very different, the risks for Washington are similar. Once again, the United States seems helpless as a crucial ally -- in this case the Egyptian military -- recklessly flaunts democratic norms. The persistent instability and disillusionment with the democratic process likely to follow the coup was obvious even before this week's violent clashes and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's alarming call for mass protests in support of a new "war on terror" against the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again, Washington seems torn between its hope for democratization on the one hand, and its distaste for the aggrieved parties (Muslim Brothers in Cairo, possibly Iran-backed Shiites in Bahrain) and strategic ties to the ascendant authoritarians on the other.

Faced with this dilemma, Washington has tried to hide. President Barack Obama's administration will reportedly tell lawmakers that it does not consider an obvious coup in Cairo to be a coup, and that its annual aid to Egypt will keep flowing. Secretary of State John Kerry bafflingly mused that the military might have prevented a civil war, which is a defensible analytical position but not the sort of thing that a senior U.S. official should be saying aloud. Finally, the White House belatedly announced it was suspending the delivery of four F-16s to the Egyptian military -- but declined to suspend a major joint military exercise or its $1.3 billion in annual aid.

It's easy to understand why the United States hedged its bets. The mass protests on June 30, the July 3 coup, the escalating Muslim Brotherhood protests, the dissolution of virtually all political institutions, and this week's seemingly unstoppable charge toward full-scale repression have seemingly shattered America's roadmap for the country's transition to democracy. With the military in charge and politics driven by competing street protests, there are no longer any established rules to the political game. And things weren't going well even before the coup: Egypt's economy was in free-fall, street clashes were increasingly violent, and many Egyptians were deeply alarmed by the unilateral and majoritarian behavior of Mohamed Morsy's government.

It's not like Egyptians particularly want Washington to do anything, either. Its politicians and public figures instead unanimously tell the United States to buzz off and mind its own business. The wave of anti-Americanism that swept Cairo's streets in the wake of the military takeover, no matter how politically motivated, has to be disturbing for a White House that prided itself on reaching out to newly empowered Arab publics. But quite frankly, a lot of people in Washington seem downright relieved to be rid of the troublesome Muslim Brotherhood and the endless crises of attempted democratization, and happy to just get back to working with a friendly military regime. A new Mubarakism may not be pretty, but it doesn't look so bad to a lot of Americans exhausted by the region's chaos.

At this point, the number of people who really believe the United States supports Egyptian democracy would probably fit around a Washington think-tank conference room table. But I would be one of those around that table -- U.S. policy toward Egypt isn't quite the disaster it appears. America's goal of helping to create an institutionalized Egyptian democracy was the right one, and its low-key approach accurately reflected its limited ability to shape events. U.S. officials understood that Egypt's future would be shaped by Egyptians, and that not many Egyptians anxiously awaited a White House statement to decide what to think about their political crisis.

I continue to believe that until June 30, the United States had done about as well as it could have done with its Egypt policy. Its mistakes, like its positive influence, have been at the margins. It might have spoken out more forcefully at some points and been more even-handed in its rhetoric at others, but such tinkering with public messaging would have made no actual difference in Egyptian politics. I've said it before and will say it again: The United States has been absolutely right to call for elections and the transfer of power to civilian rule, to push for the inclusion of Islamists, to focus on the democratic process and not support any political trend, and not to grandstand or take ownership of the politics of a country with zero appetite for American guidance.

None of those core principles should change today. There is no going back to Mubarakism: Egypt and the entire Middle East have changed too much for paternalistic authoritarianism to be easily restored. The United States should maintain principled support for a real democratic transition in Egypt, just as it has been trying to do for the last two-and-a-half years. The core interests it seeks to protect, whether Israel's security, the reliability of the Suez Canal, or broad regional cooperation will not be served by the unending turbulence and perpetual crisis which are the alternative to meaningful democratic consolidation.

So what does all this mean in practice for America's Egypt policy? For one, Washington should call the coup a coup and suspend military aid, while holding open the door for that verdict to change if Egypt adheres to a rapid and real return to civilian rule. It should not burn its relationship with the Egyptian military with empty words, but it should make clear the Egyptian military has to do more than take Washington's phone calls -- it has to take its advice seriously. The suspension of delivery of F-16s announced yesterday should -- but probably won't -- be followed by real conditionality on further aid disbursement, as is currently being discussed in Congress.

Washington should also push for quick parliamentary and presidential elections, with international monitoring to assure that they are free and fair. That will sound rather empty, given that it implies accepting the abolition of the previous democratic outcomes. But little good would be served by pushing for restoring Morsy to office at this point: The military has made it clear that it's far too late for that, and the Brotherhood's behavior on the streets -- including its call to march on the U.S. Embassy -- make it unpalatable to support such a move. But the United States should push hard to end the detention and trial of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members and to insist upon their right to participate in political life. And Washington should make absolutely clear that it rejects the return to emergency law or abuses under the name of a "war on terror," which some Egyptians worry is in the cards.

Egypt matters too much for Washington to allow it to slide off the precipice for which it is heading. The United States can't and shouldn't try to control Egyptian politics, but it should use what influence it has to try and push its ally back onto a democratic path.

Such calls to stay the course on Egypt will ring hollow for many, and seem wrongheaded to others. But this is the time for President Barack Obama to prove that he really believed what he has so often said about the urgency of democratic change in the Arab world and America's willingness to reverse decades of past support for authoritarian regimes.

Egypt's revolution, the cornerstone of the Arab uprising and the harbinger of the possibility of meaningful democratic transformation, cannot be allowed to degenerate into repression and sullen despotism justified in the name of a "war on terror." Washington might not be able to stop it, but it has to at least try.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

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