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Over the past weekend Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt for the first time since the election in late June of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Dr. Muhammad Morsi. During her visit, Clinton not only met with the new president but also sat with Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the same military council that has been effectively ruling the country since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.
According to the New York Times, Clinton declared during her meeting with the Egyptian Islamist president that the U.S. “supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails” and emphasized the need for “building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum.” The following day Clinton met with Tantawi after which she declared that the U.S. would like to see the Egyptian military return to “purely national security role.”
Across the region her statements were interpreted as a thinly disguised, yet conditional, pledge of support to the new president and a warning to the military not to upset the nascent democratic process in Egypt. Last month as the election results were deliberately delayed by the pro-SCAF Elections Commission the Washington Post reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned his Egyptian counterpart Tantawi in two separate phone calls not to alter the results in favor of the military’s candidate and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, but honor the will of the Egyptian electorate and the democratic process.
So what is one to make of the American policy in Egypt and the broader Middle East, especially after the Arab Spring?
After the rise of American global power in the aftermath of WWII, American global strategy focused for decades on its rivalry with the Soviet Union. The theatre of this conflict was mainly in Europe, as the Middle East was just a backdrop to this conflict between superpowers. The American strategy could simply be summed up during that time as: Keeping the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Soviets out.
With the collapse and disintegration of the communist empire, but especially after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration devised a new national security strategy that focused on the Middle East as its new theatre of operations launching three successive wars in a matter of few years: in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a broader so-called “war on terror.” According to military strategist Thomas Barnett, for almost a decade the strategy of the American administration in the Middle East was: Keeping the Israelis strong, the Saudis safe, and the “fundamentalist radicals” out. During the last decade, as the United States expended massive resources on fighting elusive and largely unidentified groups, the world witnessed the rise of other global and regional powers (not only China in the pacific and a reconstituted Russia but in other regions as well) challenging American hegemony around the world.
During the first year of the Obama administration, a fundamental reevaluation of American global strategy concluded that the source of real long term threats to American power and hegemony did not stem from the Middle East or Islamic radicals, though still posing some significant security threats, but rather from a more assertive China in the Pacific Rim region and a reconstituted Russia flexing its muscles against its neighbors. During this reassessment the Obama administration moved to scale down Bush’s wars and tried to realign its new focus with a fresh approach in the Middle East geared towards regaining lost credibility with the people of the region by tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that failed miserably because of Israel’s intransigence.
As the Arab Spring was increasingly taking hold across the region since early 2011, the American administration slowly adopted a policy of selectively abandoning its long-term dictator allies in favor of a new realignment in the region. Such managed transition, it is thought by American strategists, would not only preserve America’s long term interests, but would also consolidate its capacity to face the new challenges as enunciated in the U.S. strategic vision of the new global threats.
Towards realizing its global strategy, the Obama administration summed up the American strategic interests in the Middle East as follows:
1) Protecting the security and legitimacy of Israel, despite the fact that the current Israeli government’s attitude towards its conflict with the Palestinians is at odds with American interests and broader strategy. The Egyptian revolution has also opened the possibility of the annulment of the three-decade Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Thus, the preservation of this treaty has become a top priority not only in Washington, but also in Tel Aviv.
2) Maintaining stability in the region, especially in the Gulf countries in order to safeguard the free flow of oil at affordable prices. In this view, upsetting the balance of power in the region where independent or popular powers could rise to control the supply and price of oil could have a detrimental impact on the U.S. and global economy at a time of massive deficits in the U.S. and Europe. Needless to say, the control of oil as a global strategic asset gives the United States a tremendous advantage over other global powers such as China or Russia.
3) Securing major military bases in the region, such as the air force base in Qatar and the naval base in Bahrain, as well as keeping sea lanes and trade routes open, particularly in the Persian Gulf, and finally the effective control of the Suez Canal, especially at crucial times, by maintaining the strategic military alliance with Egypt. Such overbearing American military presence will keep this vital region in the U.S. column against its global rivals.
4) Isolating Iran and applying economic, military, political, and diplomatic pressures in order to not only reverse its nuclear program and accept limits on its rights for civilian nuclear technology, but also to curb its influence in the region, moderate its behavior, and possibly even induce regime change.
5) Keeping the markets in the region open for Western goods, technology, and investments, and free of protections for local goods, but more importantly keeping the global capitalist system intact.
6) Having the upper hand against not only Al-Qaeda, but also other so-called terrorist or radical Islamic groups in the region, by keeping military pressure mainly through special operations, military raids, and drone attacks. This strategy was also extended to include any group that might challenge U.S. military presence in the region.
7) Promoting Western cultural values, education, and lifestyle so as to empower secular, liberal, and “enlightened” forces against their conservative or religious rivals in the heart of the Muslim world.
However, with the unfolding of the Arab Spring the U.S. struggled to cope with the consequences of this phenomenon that brought organized Islamic political forces to the forefront of their societies. The Obama administration concluded early on that reversing this trend is not only fruitless but futile. By late last year the debate was settled within the administration by initiating a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement, the most organized and popular Islamic group in the region.
Nevertheless, many officials in the administration, especially those with a strong pro-Israeli predisposition such as Dennis Ross (when he was part of the White House national security team) were skeptical. Led by U.S. Ambassador in Egypt, Anne Patterson, the dialogue started slowly and cautiously, but quickly expanded to include major administration officials such as Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. On the MB side the relationship is managed by the high-ranking Deputy General Guide Khairat Al-Shater, the most powerful figure in the group and its candidate for president before being disqualified by the Elections Commission for a prior conviction during the Mubarak era.
Earlier this year, Burns sat with Al-Shater in Cairo where the meeting focused on the group’s position towards the peace treaty with Israel. During the encounter Burns promised the MB leader that the U.S. could help secure from the IMF and the Arab Gulf countries as much as $20 billion if the treaty is honored. Within weeks the MB sent delegations and messages to the U.S. promising the preservation of the status quo.
The U.S. was as surprised as anyone when the presidential elections resulted in a victory for Morsi and the MB. But it quickly seized on the opportunity to realign or cow the rising regional Islamic forces, especially in Egypt and North Africa, to support the U.S. agenda in the region. The American hard calculation was that the support of military rule in Egypt is not only unsustainable but also counterproductive and would create indefinite instability.
Moreover, throughout the dialogue with the MB the U.S. discovered the group to be pragmatic, willing to do business with the West, play by the Western set of rules, adopt a Western style capitalist economic model albeit with some social safety nets, as well as being sensitive to many of the U.S. strategic concerns, especially with regard to the American economic and security needs. The MB was also inspired with the Turkish model of Prime Minister Tayyeb Erdogan. After a decade in power, the U.S. was satisfied with the performance of his Justice and Development party, which shied away from directly challenging the U.S. supremacy in the region and proved to be a reliable ally on the U.S. major strategic questions.
In June, President Obama met with a large group of major American Jewish leaders in the White House. According to DEBKA, an Israeli website close to Israeli intelligence agencies, the president assured the group that “President Morsi would be required to devote a section of his earliest speech on foreign affairs to the specific affirmation of his profound commitment to the peace pact with Israel.” Within hours of being declared president, Morsi gave his assurance that Egypt would honor all its international treaty obligations in a not-so-disguised reference to its treaty with Israel.
In his meeting with the American Jewish delegation Obama also promised that he would not invite Morsi to the U.S. unless and until such assurances are provided. One week after his inauguration, Morsi met with Burns who apparently received such assurances as he extended an Obama invitation in September to the new president.
Meanwhile, Tantawi’s military council, which seized legislative powers by dissolving the five-month old parliament and issued a constitutional decree that transferred much of the presidential powers to itself, began to re-assert its power and influence by using much of the Mubarak era state media, bureaucracy, and courts to frustrate the new president. After Morsi restored parliament in early July, the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court immediately reversed him and handed all legislative powers back to the military.
During this brief power struggle between Morsi and the military, most secular and liberal forces surprisingly sided with the military and viciously attacked the president accusing him of power grab and disdain for the rule of law. Put simply their hatred of the Islamic group outweighed their interest in democracy or civilian rule. Many of these groups, including Coptic leaders refused to meet with Clinton accusing the U.S. of providing tacit support to the MB.
A few days before Clinton was to arrive in Cairo, Morsi visited Saudi Arabia on July 11 in his first foreign trip after becoming president. A week earlier a Saudi academic close to the monarchy wrote an article in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper titled “What the Gulfies want from Brotherhood’s Morsi?” He asked the Egyptian president to provide public assurances on four major concerns to the Arab Gulf monarchies. They were namely, not to interfere in their internal affairs through the elaborate MB structures in their countries, to side with them against Iran, to favor the relationship with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors over a potential close relationship with Turkey, and most interestingly for Egypt to keep the same distance with regard to the Palestinian factions despite the fact that the Mubarak regime favored Fatah and kept the political and economic pressures on Hamas for years, the same group that shared its Islamic background with the Egyptian president.
Remarkably, within a week Morsi complied with all the Saudi demands and gave several statements addressing their concerns. He assured the Arab Gulf regimes that Egypt has no intention to either export its revolution or interfere in their internal affairs. While in Saudi Arabia he affirmed Egypt’s policy of belonging to the “Moderate Sunni” camp as he assured the Saudi monarch of Egypt’s strategic alliance with his country, as well as lending support to the regional balance of power in a direct reference to the challenge posed by Iran to the Gulf monarchies. On Turkey, Morsi assured his Saudi hosts that Egypt has always maintained an Arab first foreign policy approach that will be maintained during his tenure.
But perhaps most surprisingly the Egyptian president uttered the same words called for by the Saudi academic when he announced in Riyadh that “Egypt would keep the same distance to the Palestinian factions,” namely the Palestinian Authority and its rival Islamic groups. In essence, he promised the Saudis that Egypt would give the same consideration to those who cooperate with Israeli intelligence and security apparatuses against the Palestinian resistance and those who are its main targets and victims.
Against this backdrop, Clinton landed in Cairo hoping to lend support to civilian rule while maintaining the strategic alliance with Egypt’s military. According to theNew York Times, she was supposed to give a major address in Alexandria but decided to call off the speech for fear of offending some of the rival parties. Throughout her trip, Clinton was met with angry supporters of the military and Mubarak’s remnants, who accused the U.S. of supporting the MB.
After her meeting with President Morsi, Clinton, who had just issued a waiver for U.S. military aid to the Egyptian military from the congressional certification of a genuine democratic transfer of power to civilian rule, met with the head of SCAF, Tantawi. During her meeting with the military chief, she promised to maintain the $1.3 billion annual military subsidy and offered another $1 billion aid package that Obama promised last year. But apparently Clinton’s open prodding of the military to hand over power to civilians fell on deaf ears. After his meeting with Clinton, Tantawi addressed an all-military audience in a transfer of power ceremony for Egypt’s second army. He defiantly stated that Egypt’s military would not allow one group to rule over Egypt, in a direct reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The following day, Clinton left for Israel to brief its nervous leaders on her Cairo talks.
Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, told Israel Radio, “She is bringing a very calming message. By their (the U.S.) reckoning as well, Egypt’s agenda, and certainly President Morsi’s agenda, will be a domestic agenda.” He continued, “There is no change (on Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty) and I surmise there will not be in the foreseeable future.”
But the real test of Morsi’s policy with regard to American and Israeli dictates might be in fulfilling his campaign promise to lift the siege on Gaza. According to Israeli sources Clinton extracted a promise from him during her recent visit to maintain the blockade, while Hamas leaders assured the people of Gaza that their suffering would soon come to an end.
In this high stakes of international power play the U.S. strategy in the region is to prefer a managed transition to civilian rule and democratic governance as long as the American major strategic objectives are not challenged. In short, the strategy is to give the Islamic rising powers a chance to govern as long as they agree to: keep the Americans in, the Chinese and Russians out, the Iranians down, and the Israelis safe.
Time will only tell if the Islamic group would fulfill such expectations or chart a more independent course in line with the objectives of the revolution that brought them to power.
Esam Al-Amin can be contacted at email@example.com
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