The diplomacy between the United States and Egypt is not just another chapter in history. Enjoying a strong rapport, with the United States once conflicted over choosing Israel or Egypt to support in the Yom Kippur War (eventually choosing a complicated route of neutrality), Egypt and the United States had stable relations under the Hosni Mubarak regime. After Mubarak’s ouster and arrival of President Mohammed Morsi, who was then overthrown himself, the United States had a deeply cautious view of Egypt at the end of the Obama Administration. That caution, pushed by a progressive lens and a worldview of an Egypt and Middle East based on morality in government, has been all but thrown out the window under a Donald Trump Presidency.
During vacation in India earlier this year, I got wind of an absurd rumor that President Obama and the United States helped orchestrate 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 Hillary Clinton and 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 political 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 often been U.S. policy to push secular and open-religion policies in the Middle East, given the presence of Coptic Christians, ethnic divisions among 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 and Government at Harvard University, that President Obama and the rest of the Administration thought the Arab Spring was the permanent inauguration of democratic principles in Egypt and elsewhere. It was and is far more complicated of a region to have that happen in such a short period of time.
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 after misreading the situation initially, objected to the change 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 even 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?
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 was progressive on foreign policy.
Obama’s distrust and his divide with committed interventionists like Kerry and Hagel stemmed from his beliefs, which 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 reset in U.S.-Egypt relations was real. Obama never met Sisi at the White House. The Obama Administration also repeatedly criticized Sisi for arresting political opponents (40,000 currently detained) and Egypt has indeed committed human rights violations across the board, against women, journalists, and human rights advocates themselves.
Trump however, invited Sisi to Washington, reversed Obama’s left flank on what the Middle East should look like in the modern age, and counterintuitively restored warmer relations with Egypt. 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, and while Sisi may be a political moderate and a secular figure, his domestic agenda nullifies the case for American support.
It must not be forgotten however, that President Obama may be the only person in human 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 as a terrorist sympathizer and fails to fight off extremism in the Middle East, while U.S. intelligence protects the Muslim Brotherhood. It was Obama’s “terrorist creationism” that led to the Orlando shooting, and will terrorism in America will continue because of the Muslim Brotherhood and the support Obama offered.
Such uneducated rhetoric completely bypasses the reality that the Muslim Brotherhood had no known ties to the mass shooter in Orlando, and that the shooter in that tragic incident, just like plenty of other mass shootings, was able to commit such heinous killings because of lax gun control. Access to guns and the Republican condoning of it enables the spirit of American-born Islamic Jihad if it were to strike; American and Israeli authorities’ past willingness to work with the former Brotherhood-aligned Morsi Government to protect regional security interests does not.
Naturally, Human Rights Watch has a different view. From the onset of the Trump Administration, HRW has been opposing designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization because their structure, objectives, and capabilities appear to differ from Al-Qaeda or Daesh. The United Kingdom found no conclusive evidence that the Brotherhood was behind terrorism abroad. HRW criticized the previous interim Junta Government’s decision to label the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization because it later aided Sisi in his efforts to suppress 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, militant, organization.
The story of the U.S. pushing Morsi out of office appears to be a fabrication. This was not “Operation Ajax”, as seen in Iran. USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s foreign aid agenda is one thing (which may be questioned), a military coup and American forces collaborating is quite another. Nevertheless, Trump’s blasé attitude allows Egypt and the Arab League to shift further away from what the Arab Spring wanted to deliver.