If the Obama administration is uncomfortable dealing with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Washington is in for even more telling decisions as the uprising against the Islamists grows in other Arab Spring countries and beyond.
That could include the need to pick sides on untested ground bordering Israel and Egypt, where some residents inspired by Egypt’s overthrow have decided they’d rather have jobs and trash pickup over leaders constantly sinking resources into perpetual jihad.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “had a very good conversation” when Kerry told the military leader that the U.S. would withhold large-scale military systems and cash assistance until, in the words of the original announcement, Washington determines there is “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.”
“We both agreed that we have – that it’s important for the two countries to continue working together,” Harf said. “That’s why we’re continuing our relationship and that’s what we’re focused on right now, working with them to do just that.”
To many observers, the administration’s move came across as a half-measure meant to scold Egypt for the people-powered, military-assisted overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, who goes on trial Nov. 4 to face charges of killing and torturing protesters outside the presidential palace last December.
To anyone paying attention to the administration’s unwavering use of the word “inclusive,” the withdrawal of aid underscored Washington’s insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood be included in the diplomatic process toward forging a new Egypt, as well as administration anger that Brotherhood leaders were arrested and are facing trial for crimes against the Egyptian people.
The interim government’s cabinet includes three women and three Christians, inclusiveness never seen with the Muslim Brotherhood, yet no Islamists. A constitutional committee of 50 is busy drafting amendments to the document written by the Brotherhood; suggestions in the committee process have included equal protection for all ethnicities, genders and faiths, a certain number of legislative seats reserved for women, and the banning of religious political parties.
“I think we have to be very careful about telling another government how they should set up their government. We haven’t been too successful at that. But we have to be very careful also with Egypt,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said last week.
“I think it’s very important that we nourish that relationship and that we let them know that we are supportive of them and supportive of them coming up with a democratically elected president, administration, however way they structure it,” McKeon added.
The Obama administration, which demanded snap elections in July, continues to say that the democratic process isn’t moving ahead fast enough for them.
“We will continue to work with the interim government to promote our core interests and to support areas that benefit the Egyptian people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week. “The president was also clear, and has been clear, that we are not able to continue with business as usual.”
“If inclusive democracy unlocks U.S. aid, the Freedom and Justice Party must compete in #Egypt’s upcoming elections. Hard to do from jail,” former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted.
The slashing of aid and the administration’s assumption that it’s still a power broker that can force Cairo’s hand, though, hasn’t had the effect Washington hoped.
Al-Sisi’s popularity, already enviable for any leader, is even higher since Washington’s slap on the wrist and could propel him to victory should he decide to run for president. If the Obama administration views him as a menace who toppled democratically elected Morsi, the Egyptian people view him as the superhero who stepped in front of a Muslim Brotherhood train hurtling out of control and took Egypt back for the people.
Lost in many administration assessments of what happened in Egypt this summer are the facts that 22 million people, more than a quarter of the population, signed the grass-roots Tamarod petitions to demand Morsi go, and some 14 million from veiled women to Coptic nuns turned out in the streets to protest the Muslim Brotherhood government. Al-Sisi tried to first negotiate concessions out of the Muslim Brotherhood government, and then told Morsi it was time to exit.
After the aid was frozen last week, Egyptian newspaper Al-Tahrir defiantly ran the headline “Let American aid go to hell.”
“Ambassador from hell” Anne Patterson, widely reviled and seen as trying to protect the Brotherhood in the time leading up to its fall, was promoted by the White House. Her nomination hearing to be assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs was held last month at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Yet Egypt has strong supporters in very rich Gulf states vowing to help get them on their feet. These are states that have increasingly clamped down on the Brotherhood, accusing them of trying to sow discontent. These are also countries that show by example if you suppress the Islamist threat you get business investments, tourism dollars and an educated workforce — everything Egypt needs right now.
Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan, who charged that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was trying to topple the UAE government, said in April that the West “sympathies, adopts and supports” the Brotherhood, and he can’t understand why.
“These are dictators,” Khalfan said of the Brotherhood.
What Tamarod, which means “rebel,” did was provide a conclusion to the true meaning of the Arab Spring, where a people with a long history as a bedrock of civilization chose diversity over the aims of a group seeking to twist their society into one governed by Sharia law with only one acceptable religion. What the Obama administration’s aid snub did was fuel nationalism.
And Tamarod is catching fire as the democratic-minded in the Middle East and North Africa take inspiration from Egypt, even in the seemingly most unlikely of places.
A Palestinian Tamarod movement seeking to oust Hamas from rule in Gaza is planning to demonstrate Nov. 11. Hamas is already rounding up every journalist who has mentioned Tamarod to question them about their ties to the movement and try to dig up information about its grass-roots supporters.
“It all started in July 2013 with a phone call from an unknown person threatening to cut off my fingers for having written about Egypt on Facebook. Following this call, I was summoned three times,” Majed Abu Salama, an activist and freelance journalist who was detained, told Al-Monitor.
“Do not embark on this dangerous path. It is a path which could have severe consequences on our unity,” warned Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in August, stating the only “rebellion” should be against Israelis. Hamas has posted warnings directed at Tamarod supporters including a photo of a heavily armed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades member on Facebook with the text “We prepare in silence, and Tamarod’s funeral tomorrow will come. 11/11 is our deadline.”
Consider how the administration’s precedent on Egypt’s ouster could come into play here. If a Palestinian Tamarod rebellion ousts Hamas, which has brought misery and isolation to the Gaza Strip, will Washington demand that Hamas be on the ballot in free and fair elections to quickly replace an interim government designed to bring stability to the region?
Tunisia’s Tamarod movement reported last month that it had gathered more than 1.7 million signatures demanding that the Islamist government must go. “It appears that Tunisians, like the Egyptians before them, have had enough of the Muslim Brotherhood and want a change in direction in their country,” James Zogby wrote in Al-Ahram Weekly over the weekend.
Zogby presented polling results showing just 28 percent confidence in the current government, with concerns similar to Egypt that the government has been lax in addressing the economy and civil rights.
The Tamarod movement in Libya is demanding the expulsion of armed Islamist militias that wield considerable power in the post-Gaddhafi country.
Today, Egyptian authorities arrested yet another senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Freedom and Justice Party external relations coordinator Walid Al-Haddad. He joins other Brotherhood officials behind bars including leader Mohamed Badie and his second-in-command, Khairat El-Shater.
“Egypt will not surrender to American pressure and is continuing its path towards democracy as set by the roadmap,” said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatt.