The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

That never-ending path to democracy


Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

Kerry avoided mentioning Rabaa, Morsi (whose trial was about to start) or indeed the Muslim Brotherhood at all. A few days later he apparently said they “stole” the revolution, a remark that was greeted with satisfaction by the interim government here and with indignation by the Brotherhood. 

The problem with saying the Brotherhood stole the revolution is that it’s a gross simplification (for one thing it doesn’t give credit to all the other dedicated thieves who have been at work the last three years) that completely contradicts US officials’ previous statements. 

June 24, 2012 White House Statement:

The United States congratulates Dr. Mohamed Morsi on his victory in Egypt’s Presidential election, and we congratulate the Egyptian people for this milestone in their transition to democracy.

We look forward to working together with President-elect Morsi and the government he forms, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States.  We believe that it is important for President-elect Morsi to take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government. We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens – including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.  Millions of Egyptians voted in the election, and President-elect Morsi and the new Egyptian government have both the legitimacy and responsibility of representing a diverse and courageous citizenry.

Ambassador Anne Patterson, April 28, 2013

As Secretary Kerry said last week to our Congress, the Egyptian military deserves a lot of credit for turning over the government to civilians and returning to its core mission of protecting the country.  And, there is no going back, either to military rule -- which the highly professional Egyptian military rejects -- or to an authoritarian ruler who interferes in the daily life of Egyptians and curtails their freedoms.  Let me be clear: a military intervention is not the answer, as some would claim.  Neither the Egyptian military nor the Egyptian people will accept it as an outcome.

Ambassador Anne Patterson, June 8, 2013

This is the government that you and your fellow citizens elected.  Even if you voted for others, I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt.  Throughout Egypt’s post-revolution series of elections, the United States took the position that we would work with whoever won elections that met international standards, and this is what we have done. 

During his recent visit, Kerry also stepped away from concerns he and president Obama's had voiced just a few months before: 

President Obama, July 3 2013

Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsy and suspend the Egyptian constitution. I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters. 

John Kerry, July 6

The only solution to the current impasse is for all parties to work together peacefully to address the many legitimate concerns and needs of the people and to ensure Egypt has a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets to demand a better future. Lasting stability in Egypt will only be achieved through a transparent and inclusive democratic process with participation from all sides and all political parties. This process must also ensure that the rights of all Egyptian men and women are protected, including the right to peaceful assembly, due process, and free and fair trials in civilian courts.

The fact that democracy promotion is part of the US’ diplomatic rhetoric but actually low on the list of US priorities in Egypt -- and indeed anywhere -- is so blindingly obvious I’m embarrassed to restate the fact. The disingenuousness of our foreign policy is one of the reasons behind anti-US sentiment, although fomenting anti-Americanism is also a recurring, effective populist move here. 

US officials have largely let pass the abuses of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Morsi government, and the current army-backed government, in a rush to be on good working terms. The new Egyptian government has repeatedly ignored US criticism or exhortations, knowing we are not willing to damage our strategic relationship over niceties like human rights abuses. We are caught again and again mouthing principle and practicing expediency. 

There are two common misperceptions in Egypt vis-a-vis the United States. One is an overestimation of its power: because the US is powerful, it is assumed to be all-powerful. The other delusion is that the US cares enough about Egypt to actively take sides in its political struggles -- whereas all it cares about is that those struggles are resolved and a winner it can deal with emerges expeditiously. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 2009:

Secretary Clinton: I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.

Question: How do you view the presidency in Egypt, the future of the presidency in Egypt?

Clinton: That’s for the people of Egypt to decide. That is a very important issue that really is up to Egyptians.

Which meant then, as it does now: We’re going to wait and see if anyone can wrestle power from him. In which case we’ll get on board -- err, we’ll candidly discuss the challenges ahead on the path to democracy -- with that guy.