U.S. Gropes For Coherent Policy In Egypt

Aug 12, 2011
Originally published on August 22, 2011 12:10 pm
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It doesn't help that the U.S. is groping for policies in Egypt and the wider Middle East, supporting democratic change in one nation, the status quo in another. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Cairo.

MIKE SHUSTER: Start with Egypt's rulers - the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They have openly accused the protesters who occupied Tahrir Square this summer of treason, and they hint that the U.S. is behind them. It's a common view, says Hassan Abou Taleb of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

HASSAN ABOUT TALEB: Many people think that the hands of the American was behind this revolution and this is not pure Egyptian one. There are some people think about that.

SHUSTER: But the very activists whom the generals accuse of being in the pocket of the Americans have nothing good to say about U.S. policy in Egypt and the Middle East. For Sarah Abdel Rahman and Ramy Abdullah, speaking during the occupation of Tahrir Square recently, the U.S. is not a friend of Egypt's activists.

SARAH ABDEL RAHMAN: You know, they're so scared of like Egypt becoming like an Islamic state and stuff. You know, I don't want that either. But guess who's their biggest ally? Saudi Arabia. I don't understand it. Their policy is so inconsistent and contradictory.

RAMY ABDULLAH: I think all is controlled by Israel government, so they cannot do anything except that what they tell them.

SHUSTER: Suspicions like this, even contradictory suspicions, are common throughout Egypt and the wider Arab world, says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

FAWAZ GERGES: A deeply entrenched belief that the United States does not really wish democracy to take root in that part of the world. Right or wrong, but that's across the board, people suspect the United States of bad intentions.

SHUSTER: Recently, Egypt's ruling generals openly accused pro-democracy activists of being spies for the U.S., in the pay of the new U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson. One magazine called her the ambassador from hell. This week at the State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland called that unacceptable.

VICTORIA NULAND: We think this kind of representation of the United States is not only inaccurate, it's unfair. We are very strong supporters of Egypt's transition to a democratic future, and we will continue to be there for Egypt.

SHUSTER: But for many in Egypt that is not always evident. In Nabil Fahmy's view, the wounds are self-inflicted. Fahmy was Egypt's ambassador in Washington for nine years. Now he is dean of global affairs at the American University in Cairo.

NABIL FAHMY: I'm not surprised that you will contradict yourself because in the Middle East you made that a habit, frankly.

SHUSTER: Fahmy says it's not easy for Egyptians to understand how politics in the U.S. affects the strategic goals the U.S. pursues in the Middle East, such as support for Israel, support for Saudi Arabia, and protection of the flow of oil.

FAHMY: In advising Egyptians, I would always tell them, well, factor in America's strategic interests and its tactical inconsistencies. The first is based on a clear understanding of your strategic interests. And the second is based on parochial domestic politics.

SHUSTER: There is an irony in all this. Because of the long-time friendly relationship between U.S. military leaders and their Egyptian counterparts, it was the U.S. that helped persuade Egypt's generals to abandon Mubarak earlier this year and side with the protesters, notes Fawaz Gerges. But Egyptians who wanted Mubarak to go, he says, haven't quite factored that in.

GERGES: There is a very close relationship between the American defense establishment and the Egyptian military officers, in particular the senior echelon of the Egyptian army. And that's why the American military exercised a bit of influence over the Egyptian army and convinced the army basically to ease Mubarak out.

SHUSTER: Despite widespread suspicions of the United States, there are many here who concede the relationship is essential. But, many analysts argue, it's time for the U.S. to rethink many of its assumptions. And it will have to understand, says Fawaz Gerges, that things have fundamentally changed in the Middle East.

GERGES: One of the major lessons that we have learned in the last seven months is that the United States no longer shapes developments in the region in the same way that it did in the last 60 years. In the Middle East now you have new social forces that have taken ownership of their own history to try to determine their own affairs, determine their own future.

SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.