The Middle East Channel

Clouded U.S. policy on Egypt

During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.

However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country's newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability. 

That bargain, which was largely premised on Egyptian support for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, granted the Mubarak regime wide latitude to repress its own people in exchange for regional security cooperation. The United States became accustomed to dealing with Mubarak and his inner circle, with little need to cultivate broad ties.

Since the fall of Mubarak, the United States has adopted a defensive crouch in Egypt that is primarily driven by fears that the treaty might be discarded by Egypt's new rulers. This narrow and blinkered approach to Egypt misunderstands Egyptian national interests, and undermines the formulation of constructive policies. It also has pushed the United States to focus outsized attention on the cultivation of ties with the now ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, often heedless of broader Egyptian political dynamics.

The United States cannot micromanage Egyptian politics, but it retains real influence and it can, at the very least, attempt to staunch negative trends as opposed to reinforcing moral hazards. The current Egyptian government now believes in its own centrality and strategic significance, and it further believes that it has the uncritical support of the United States and the international community.

While the fevered imaginings of secret deals between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood that have become an unfortunate fixture of post-Mubarak political discourse have no basis in reality, it is true that the United States has overcompensated in its efforts to reverse the flawed policies of the recent past when Islamists were shunned and their repression encouraged.

Following Mubarak's ouster, the Obama administration rightfully began an uncomfortable yet much-needed engagement with Egypt's most coherent and dominant political force, the Muslim Brotherhood. This singular focus on the Brotherhood, however, has often made little distinction between the social movement as a whole, and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. In and of itself, this is problematic, as the Brotherhood has yet to normalize its legal status and retains a total lack of transparency regarding its funding and its relationship with the country's elected leaders.

While the Brothers have a long history of anti-Western and anti-American thought, they have been consistent in their approach to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty despite their deep-seated hostility to Israel, which often veers into the realm of anti-Semitism, and the widespread popular anger with the occupation of Palestinian lands and the failure of the peace process. It is perhaps one of the few areas where the words and deeds of the Muslim Brotherhood have not diverged.

The reasons for this consistency should be clear to the United States, but too often it views the Camp David bargain as the outcome of a coercive aid arrangement and therefore as perpetually at risk. Fundamentally, upholding the treaty is an enduring Egyptian national interest. It is a threshold for continued international legitimacy at a time when Egypt will require substantial international assistance and support. Further, the still-powerful national security establishment has a dispositive voice on such critical matters, and it has made abundantly clear that Egypt has no intention of abrogating its treaty obligations.

Despite this reality, the United States has shaped its policy on Egypt with a narrow focus, first and foremost, on the peace treaty and its sustainability. While this is a key U.S. interest, U.S. policy on Egypt does not assure the protection of that and other interests, which depend primarily on a stable and functioning Egypt.

The short tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi has been marked by the maximizing of factional power and the absence of meaningful reform or even governance. The growing polarization in the country has produced an intractable political crisis that makes dealing with the country's interlinked economic and social crises impossible. The present course of exclusionary unilateralism mixed with repressive actions is a path to instability, with no guarantees of Egypt muddling its way through.

To make matters worse, these negative political trends have been unintentionally encouraged by U.S. signals. This was abundantly clear in the aftermath of the November 2012 Israeli military attack on Gaza, when Egypt played an important role in the negotiation of a ceasefire. The spiral of events that followed were damaging to the prospects of an inclusive and stable Egypt and to the reputation of the United States. At root, the United States overestimated the options for Egypt in the face of the fighting in Gaza. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood's ideological affinity and strong links with Hamas, Egypt's enduring interests are a durable check against foreign policy adventurism, particularly at this current vulnerable juncture. In the aftermath of that foreign policy victory and a visit by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Morsi quickly parlayed his newfound capital to expand his authorities in autocratic fashion. In his constitutional declaration on November 22, Morsi immunized his actions from judicial review in an effort to protect the Islamist-dominated constitutional drafting process. This myopic step institutionalized Egypt's political crisis and ensured that the country's foundational document would be a destabilizing element in the country's future.

With Morsi's cooperation on Gaza firmly in mind, the United States was slow to understand the significance of this constitutional crisis, which had permanent ramifications, and was loathe to place blame at the feet of its newfound partner. In various official statements and readouts, the United States engaged in stark equivalence that avoided the causes of the country's crisis and appropriate blame.

While this approach is partly fuelled by understandable frustrations in dealing with Egypt's fragmented and ineffectual opposition, these disappointments have clouded judgments, resulting in a wide degree of latitude with respect to the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. While Morsi continues to enjoy electoral legitimacy, the ballot box cannot be a route for majoritarian repression.

These mistakes were crystallized when the United States hosted an Egyptian official at the White House in the midst of the crisis. The meeting between Dr. Essam al-Haddad, the assistant to the president for foreign relations and international cooperation, and the U.S. national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, included an extensive drop-by from Obama. A former senior Egyptian diplomat who played a key role in managing U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations expressed his dismay to me that such a meeting could take place in the midst of Egypt's ongoing political crisis. While noting the difficulty of choreographing such meetings, he assumed that the meeting represented a sign of outward support for the Muslim Brothers in their political struggle back home. At best, this was a case of clumsy diplomacy. At worst, it represents a mistaken strategic choice.  

While the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys its current electoral supremacy, the United States should make no assumptions about the permanence of its position. The fluidity of the Egyptian electorate and the immense challenges before the current government suggest that this preeminence is not inevitable.

The United States must certainly remain engaged with Egypt and calls for blunt and immediate conditionality of U.S. aid are impractical and potentially counterproductive. But the United States should reappraise the broader aid relationship and fashion workable conditionality arrangements. In the immediate future, the United States is not without other forms of influence. Egypt's current leaders crave international acceptance and legitimacy and are reliant on outside support and assistance, particularly from international financial institutions. The United States should use those tools to try to shape how Egypt's leaders perceive their interests, recognizing the inherent limitations involved, and it should synchronize these efforts with allies.

With Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to visit Egypt for the first time in the coming days, he should make clear that under the circumstances the United States is not in a position to host Morsi, as is currently planned for later in the spring.  

The United States rightfully claims that it does not support specific political parties in Egypt but is instead supportive of the democratic process. Its recent actions have undermined this intent. More importantly, by signaling its unconditional acceptance of Morsi and his government, the United States has encouraged the very actions that now jeopardize the success of Egypt's transition from authoritarianism.

The ultimate check on the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood lies with Egypt's citizens, but at the very least, the United States should refrain from encouraging the troubling impulses exhibited by the Brothers in their short, troubled time in power. A re-tooled authoritarian bargain is no longer on offer, and succumbing to old patterns will only to serve to jeopardize U.S. interests and encourage Egypt's present unsustainable course.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @mwhanna1.


The Middle East Channel

Talks resume between World Powers and Iran over nuclear program

A new round of talks began on Tuesday in Kazakhstan between Iran and world powers. Negotiators from Iran are meeting with the U.N. Security Council's permanent five members -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- in addition to Germany. International powers suspect Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons, but Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. There is little optimism that this round of talks will yield a breakthrough. However, both sides have recently offered concessions. The spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the dialogue, said "We have prepared a good and updated offer for the talks, which we believe is balanced and a fair basis for constructive talks." The United States proposed limited sanctions relief, and Iran said it was prepared to make an offer. Sanctions have taken a severe toll on Iran's economy, but they have not succeeded in pressuring Iran to temper its nuclear ambitions. In fact, Tehran announced technological advances just this week.

Opposition forces in Syria see a week of significant gains

The Syrian opposition has abandoned its boycott of talks in Rome on Syria. Head of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib said he would lead a delegation to the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Rome this week. However, the largest faction within the coalition maintained it would not participate, saying opposition forces have waited long enough for Western assistance. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said the Obama administration is considering new options to increase support to the Syrian opposition, and insisted that the United States would not leave them "dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it's coming." Saudi Arabia has been financing the purchase of Croatian arms which it has been reportedly funneling to opposition fighters since December. Meanwhile, a deadly explosion and heavy clashes were reported in Damascus, Syria's capital. Additionally, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, clashes between opposition fighters and government forces are endangering the historic Umayyad Mosque in the northern city of Aleppo. 


Arguments and Analysis

Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions  (International Crisis Group)

"With war a frightening prospect and fruitful negotiations a still-distant dream, sanctions have become the West's instrument of choice vis-à-vis Iran. They are everywhere: in the financial arena, barring habitual commercial relations; in the oil sector, choking off Tehran's principal source of currency; in the insurance sector, thwarting its ability to transport goods. Without doubt, they are crippling Iran's economy. But are they succeeding? By at least one important criterion (the intensity of Western concern over nuclear progress), plainly they are not. Add to this myriad unintended consequences (bolstering the regime's ability to allocate goods; harming ordinary citizens; pushing leaders persuaded the goal is regime change to escalate its own retaliatory steps; and constructing a web of punitive measures harder to unknot than to weave). Sanctions are not necessarily counterproductive. But, too easily they become a path of least resistance, a tool whose effectiveness is assessed by the harm inflicted, not how much closer it brings the goal. In future cases, policymakers should make sure to constantly re-evaluate their effects. For now, the priority is devising a menu of meaningful, realistic sanctions relief to match meaningful, realistic nuclear concessions."

Even if Iran gets the Bomb, it won't be worth going to war (Jack Straw, The Telegraph)

"What Iran seeks is twofold. First, it wants its "full rights" under the NPT for civil nuclear power. It can fairly point out that three nuclear weapons states - Israel, India and Pakistan - have always refused to join the NPT, while North Korea, now boasting about its atomic capability, withdrew from the Treaty in 2003. Second, it seeks an end to its international isolation and a recognition (especially by the US) of its regional status.

Normalisation of relations with Iran is also an important prize for the international community. It has a considerable capacity to make conditions in its unstable neighbours - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, the Occupied Territories, the Gulf States, and Afghanistan - more, or less difficult. An early priority for the UK should be the reopening of the embassies in Tehran and London.

I have never been complacent about a nuclear-armed Iran, which is why I devoted so much time to negotiations with the country. My own best judgment is that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who controls the nuclear dossier, probably wants to create the intellectual capacity for a nuclear weapons system, but will stop short of making that system a reality. If I am wrong, further isolation of Iran would follow; but would it trigger nuclear proliferation across the Middle East? Not in my view. Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia "have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route" is the accurate conclusion of researchers from the War Studies Department of King's College London."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey