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How Trump ended Obama’s progress on Egypt

The U.S. misread the Arab spring and shifted policy under Obama. Donald Trump never saw the ingenuity.

A meeting between El Sisi and Obama in New York (Times of Israel).

The United States and Egypt have had solid relations historically, but matters have recently been stressful and complex for the United States after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and arrival of President Mohammed Morsi, who was then overthrown himself. Since then, the United States had a logical course of action in terms of how to deal with Egypt under President Obama. Here is how Trump undid years of progressive, democratic, intellectual U.S. foreign policy towards Egypt.

During vacation in India earlier this year, I got wind of an absurd rumor that President Obama and the United States helped implement the military coup that overthrew dictator-president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. American imperialism strikes again! According to Al-Jazeera, what actually happened was that the U.S. State Department under mostly Hillary Clinton but also John Kerry provided foreign aid to government officials and activists who were anti-Islamist, anti-Morsi, and promoted secular, democratic, and pro-United States ideals. State and USAID frequently provide money to other countries, but this money went to left-wing individuals and Egyptian NGO’s, not actual guns, weapons, or direct U.S. military advice or cooperation. How was the White House supposed to know that funding liberal organizations in Egypt would lead to a military junta in Egypt for nearly a year?

What the United States did was help educational and policy efforts pushing centre-left to leftist pro-democracy ideologies. Oh, the horror! It has always been U.S. policy to push secular and open-religion policies in the Middle East, given the presence of Coptic Christians, a variety of different Muslims, Jews, and others.

Where the Obama Administration went wrong was believing that these resources were being used for good intentions; pro-democracy efforts instead helped set up a military government, which is not exactly democratic. That corresponds with assertions made by Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard, that President Obama and the Administration thought the Arab Spring was the inauguration of democratic principles in Egypt and elsewhere. It was and is far more complicated of a region to have that happen so quickly, and the President should not have gotten so excited.

Politics, like basketball, is a read and react game. If man-to-man is not working, switch to a 3–2 zone. If that is not working, switch to 2–3. Relying on the three-ball, unless the defense is letting you shoot it, is always risky. It is always a safe bet to try to score in the paint. President Obama, an avid basketball player, shifted to scoring points in the paint, and froze nearly all U.S. foreign aid to Egypt after Morsi was removed, with public statements asking Egypt to hold Democratic elections. The decision to freeze aid was actually opposed by Israel, who stood behind Egypt despite turning into a military dictatorship. If the U.S. military was coordinating with the Egyptian counterpart to facilitate a coup, then why did President Obama also suspend U.S.-Egypt military exercises? The United States was being the most critical of Egypt.

U.S.-Egypt Relations over the years (Getty Images, Times of Israel, South Africa Today).

After the dust cleared, and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was President, Egypt did eventually get military aid from the United States. However, everyone in the Obama Administration except for John Kerry and Chuck Hagel urged caution, pragmatism, and vetting before supporting Egypt moving forward, with both Susan Rice and Samantha Power lining up behind Obama’s skepticism of Sisi. It is very clear now that President Obama truly was left-leaning on foreign policy and international affairs, and his beliefs did not align with Sisi’s authoritarian tendencies. Obama only grew more frustrated with the new regime, one that is much like the one seen under Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring was overblown, as Egypt returned to where they were before.

The reset in U.S.-Egypt relations was real. Obama never did trust El-Sisi, and the two never met at the White House. The Obama Administration also repeatedly criticized El-Sisi for arresting political opponents (40,000 currently detained) and Egypt has indeed been guilty of human rights abuses. Egypt is guilty of human rights violations across the board, against women, journalists, and human rights advocates themselves.

Trump however, invited El-Sisi, reversed Obama’s left-wing foreign policy on Egypt, and counterintuitively restored warmer relations. Trump probably likes the fact that Sisi has declared war on Islamists, radicals, and pro-Morsi Muslim Brotherhood members and related figures. Egypt has been a beneficial security partner in terms of fighting ISIS, but domestically, Egypt poses an ethical shortcoming of epic proportions. Sisi may be a political moderate and a secular figure, but undeserving of a pass. If Trump says or does nothing, how will anything in Egypt change? How can the quest for a more democratic Middle East, which the Arab Spring aimed to do, be actually fulfilled?

Trump and Sisi in the Oval Office (Politico).

President Obama may be the only person in history who has been criticized for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and for supporting the forces against it. There has been a long-standing rumor in the Anti-Obama brigade that Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood. The National Review, a sad excuse for conservatism, identified President Obama not as a jihadist, but one who fails to see the true danger the Muslim Brotherhood, and Republicans are guilty as well. To them, President Obama is actually a terrorist sympathizer and fails to fight off extremism in the Middle East, while U.S. intelligence protects the Muslim Brotherhood. It is Obama’s terrorist creationism that led to the Orlando shooting, and will continue because of Obama.

Wow. I was completely unaware that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the Orlando Massacre! Also, I missed the lines in the piece where the Orlando shooter had access to guns because of lax gun control. Even if radical Islam has infiltrated the United States, the Republican Congress sure is not doing anything to stop potential terrorists from getting firearms here at home. But no, it is Obama’s foreign policy and liberal globalism that put a gun in the hands of a domestic terrorist!

Human Rights Watch has a different view (naturally). From the onset of the Trump Administration, HRW has been opposing designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization when they are actually very different from Al-Qaeda or Daesh. The United Kingdom found no conclusive evidence that the Brotherhood was behind terrorism abroad. HRW criticized the interim Egyptian Government’s decision to label the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization because it aided Sisi in his efforts to suppress his political opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood may have questionable practices such as its support of Hamas, but it is a right-wing political organization, not a terrorist organization. I am going to side with HRW on this one.

The story of the U.S. taking Morsi out of the Presidency appears to be false. This was not “Operation Ajax”, as seen in Iran. Even if the foreign aid was for an overthrow, Mohammed Morsi was no saint. Obama still held Egypt accountable afterward. Trump is too busy loving dictators and trying to undo President Obama’s record.