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Dampening the Fires

Why Washington Never Understood Egypt’s Revolution

by GRAHAM USHER

Barack Obama praised the Egyptian revolution with his usual eloquence. "Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day," he said. "It was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — that bent the arc of history toward justice once more."

It would have meant more could he have said his administration had helped bend the arc. But mostly Washington was behind the curve in this revolt: sometimes, indeed, it was on the wrong side of the barricades.

Egypt’s tumultuous 18 days caught the US off-balance and off-guard. Despite an investment of $35 billion in military aid to Egypt over 32 years, the administration wielded little influence over Hosni Mubarak’s regime and none at all over the millions that made it fall.

Nor — whatever the rhetorical flourishes — was there any doubt about America’s primary goal: having recognised that the scale of the protests meant a move to a post-Mubarak era in Egypt was irreversible, it nonetheless kept insisting any transition must be "orderly", be led by the military and that it cast in rock Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, the cornerstone of a US regional order the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have started to loosen.

"The core of what is the American interest in this… is Israel," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. And, "the problem for America is you can balance being the carrier for the Israeli agenda with Arab autocrats, but with Arab democrats, you can’t do that."

That’s why Washington’s relief was audible when, on 12 February, Egypt’s new military rulers announced they would honour all international treaties. It’s also why the first emissary Obama sent to the region after Mubarak’s fall was not to meet the young revolutionaries on Tahrir Square but rather the old rulers in Jordan and Israel, two among several regional allies shaken by the tremor. "We want to reassure our… partners that our commitment to them… remains strong," said a US military spokesman.

United on the goal, the administration was divided over tactics. Obama, convinced the wave of protests was real and irrepressible, worried that any US failure to side with them would be remembered with bitterness by Egypt’s next generation and potential leaders. This was why he exhorted Mubarak — in public and private — that any transition must be "genuine" and "must start now".

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, stressed orderliness. Prompted by Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, she warned that a too rapid move to elections risked the process being "hijacked by new autocrats". The reference was to Iran 1979 but it also gave credence to an Israeli bogey of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power via a free vote, à la Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

The upshot was a policy incoherence that satisfied no one. Egypt’s revolutionary youth spied rejection; the regime saw perfidy; while America’s regional partners smelled betrayal, appalled by its apparent readiness to ditch a loyal ally of 30 years.

Washington seems to be weaving the same opacity for the post-Mubarak transition. On 11 February Obama called on the military to lift Egypt’s emergency and revise the constitution to make change "irreversible". But he ignored civilian demands for a presidential council to replace the military one and a transitional government to succeed a cabinet handpicked by Mubarak. This may eventually chart a path to civilian rule. But its road is clearly martial, with only the military empowered to map the course.

There are also rumours of a well-oiled American "democracy promotion machinery" to steer Egypt’s "youthful secular forces" into the void left by the NDP and sideline any resurgent Brotherhood. But co-option is not going to work. One of Washington’s former doyens, Ayman Nour, told Egypt Radio on 12 February that "the Camp David Accord [peace accord with Israel] is over… Egypt must at least renegotiate the terms."

The US seems not to have learned any of the lessons of Egypt’s revolution. Preoccupied with seeking regime or self-appointed "transitional" figures who refused or were unable to transition, it failed to see what was before its eyes: that Egypt’s young revolutionaries had between themselves transcended those old ideological divides of liberalism, secularism and Islamism and instead, in liberating Tahrir Square, had become the beacon for a national and popular movement that shook the regime to its core.

It wasn’t US pressure that compelled the military to divest Mubarak of his powers. It was lawyers, doctors, textile workers taking to the streets in an avalanche of strikes, demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience. The military elites were loyal to Mubarak, said a Western diplomat in Cairo on 11 February, but "it became increasingly clear they would not go down with" him.

Second, any "genuine democracy" at home will mean independence abroad. It’s not clear what will be the fate of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. It will probably rest on the power of what remains an unreconstructed military in the next Egyptian government.

But one thing is clear. Any military even remotely accountable to an elected Egyptian civilian government will never again be allowed to collaborate in the siege on Gaza; in the rendition of CIA fingered "suspects" to interrogators and torturers in Egyptian prisons; or in a sham American "peace process" that delivers security to Israel while it colonises what remains of Palestine. In any free Egypt the depth of peace will be measured by the extent of Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territory and the degree of Palestinian independence on its soil.

Perhaps the US will convey that message to its allies. But few in Egypt will be holding their breath. And those who helped fan a spark into a prairie fire will probably shrug their shoulders. "If the US supports the revolution, it is good for the US," Islam Lotfy told the New York Times on the revolution’s 13th day. "If they don’t, it’s an Egyptian issue."

GRAHAM USHER writes for Al Ahram Weekly, where this article originally appeared.