According to recent statements made by the Obama administration, an inclusive democracy which embodies the goals of Egypt’s 2011 revolution is the only way Egypt can continue to be a partner and friend of the United States.
A little background that you have probably already heard
With the revolution, its supposed correction on June 30th, the violence on August 14th, and the Obama administration’s recent decision to withhold aid, a multitude of stories detailing Egypt’s strategic importance to the United States have materialized. I won’t waste your time with the details that have since littered the internet, but just so we’re on the same page, here’s the gist: The US has key interests in Egypt; it wants to protect its close pal Israel, it wants access to the Suez Canal, and it wants cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. Of much greater importance than any of these interests though, is influence. The 1.5 billion dollars in aid (1.3 to military and 250 million to economic efforts), which until very recently the United States provided to Egypt on an annual basis, afforded Americans a seat at the Egyptian political decision-making table. Knowing that Egypt is a major player in the region, such a seat can, and has has proven to, be invaluable to the strategic foreign policy interests of the United States in the Middle East.
Loyal to my interests, unfaithful to my principles
At the risk of oversimplification, the relationship can be reduced to the following: I give you money and state of the art military weapons and training and throw some money at your economy; you give me some decision-making power on issues going on in your country/region that are of direct interest to me. In accordance with this understanding, the Egyptian military established itself as a dependable accomplice for US strategy in the region, “coming up big” in moments such as in 1991 when it helped the United States rally an Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein, or cooperating on intelligence efforts in the post 9/11 era. Coexisting with this deep commitment to the United States however, was an authoritarian regime. Mubarak’s deep state was just as committed to its relationship with the United States as it was to being a centralized government, characterized by rampant corruption, restricted media, police brutality, a massive gap between the rich and the poor, and a severe deficiency in civil liberties. Every now and then, the torment and suffering endured by the Egyptian people below the surface of this mutually beneficial relationship would catch fire and yield international condemnation; in such instances the US would respond with soft encouragement to the Mubarak regime to usher in democratic reforms. Such encouragement was matched by little to no action and although evidence of an increasingly authoritarian regime began to appear more frequently from 2005 – 2010, it did little more than leave a blemish on the two governments’ deeply entrenched relationship.
Why the sudden intensity?
If democracy was never something the United States aggressively pressured Egypt to move toward, why the sudden urges for inclusive democracy and the recent decision to withhold aid? Is it because we have suddenly made ourselves sick by supporting autocratic rulers who defy the supposed fabric of our political infrastructure? A quick scan of the US-Saudi relationship tells me otherwise. This contradiction is an integral piece to our diplomatic modus operandi and does not seem to be bidding us farewell anytime soon. So what is it then? Mubarak was an autocrat, SCAF’S period of interim rule was autocratic, and Morsi’s sweeping constitutional declaration in November 2012 wasn’t exactly the most democratic move in history. All of these leaders instituted authoritarian measures and all of them enjoyed the unfettered flow of US aid to Egypt.
General Abdel Fattah el -Sisi is the aberration. General Sisi is the only Egyptian leader to defy democratic principles in such a flagrant manner on the world stage the way he did when he ordered the violent dispersal of sit-ins at Rabia Adawiya and El-Nahda on August 14th. General Sisi is the reason hundreds of protesters were killed as they exercised their right to demonstrate, a right the United States firmly supports. Additionally, General Sisi was trained here in the United States and graduated from US Army War College here in Pennsylvania.
So now we’re in a tough spot. General Sisi has not only committed “deplorable” acts incongruous with democracy, he is also “one of our guys.” This is an unprecedented insult to Uncle Sam to the Nth degree and makes it nearly impossible for the United States to look the other way and continue business as usual. That is why the Obama administration’s calls for inclusive democracy are louder than ever. It’s why behaving more democratically is no longer just a suggestion and it’s why Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters have recently been withheld.
El-Sisi’s actions are forcing us to do something we should have done a long time ago and that is to support the long-term goal of democracy in Egypt.
A long time ago you say?
It’s not as if we didn’t know that democracy was the right answer. Rather, we knew it was the right answer but that it would take a long period of instability to reach — an instability that could compromise our interests. The fact is, the long dark days that serve as the backdrop to the journey from authoritarianism to democracy are well documented in history and should be well understood by the Obama administration. In France, instability relentlessly plagued the 200 years which lapsed between the founding of its First Republic in 1792 and its Fifth Republic in 1958. Other countries such as Peru, Italy, and Indonesia also underwent difficult democratic transitions. Revolutions and democratic transition are all about taking a few steps back in order to go many more steps forward. The authoritarian lid which seeks to clamp down upon transparent government, separation of powers, and civil liberties must be completely removed so that all which dwells below may rise and manifest itself within the political sphere. Yes, the result is trying times which may be marked by executions and arrivals of autocrats, reigns of terror, and coups which temporarily threaten the interests of allies; but we must understand and accept this as the nature of democratic transition.
Embracing the nature of it
Supporting the transition to an inclusive democracy means accepting the transient instability that is indispensable to its pursuit. The recently intensified urges for inclusive democracy and actions that have followed accordingly are a signal to me that the United States is choosing to let go of a historically authoritarian Egypt that has provided it with the “stability” necessary to satisfy its interests. Rather, the US seems to have realized that its interests are best served by a relationship organically rooted in mutually held democratic principles.