During the last several years numerous Egyptian friends have repeatedly expressed to me puzzlement, regret, and sometimes anger about U.S. policy toward their country. Their complaints are many, but one powerful theme stands out: they are convinced that the United States, both under George Bush and Barack Obama, has favored the Muslim Brotherhood.
When I ask people why they think the United States has taken a pro-Brotherhood line, they say the United States wants to weaken Egypt, and that stirring up divisions in the country and having the Brotherhood come to power is a way to do that. They also believe Americans have an Orientalist view of Egypt, one that implies Islamist rule is the country’s natural destiny.
I can feel the power of this view. It embodies the sense of frustration and betrayal that so many Egyptians feel about the U.S. role in their country—the sense that the United States profoundly misunderstands Egyptian realities and wants to marginalize Egypt. I agree that U.S. policy toward Egypt has been flawed for many years. But a preference for the Brotherhood is not the problem.
Bush did criticize Mubarak a bit in 2004-05 as part of his sudden, yet ultimately superficial interest in Arab democratic change. But Bush quickly reverted to the longstanding uncritical line toward Mubarak after being unsettled by the Brotherhood’s strong showing in the first two rounds of the 2005 parliamentary elections and the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections.
Obama maintained close ties with Mubarak from 2009 up to early 2011, appreciating Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism and help in dealing with the Palestinians. When large protests broke out against Mubarak the Obama team initially hoped Mubarak could survive if he made some political concessions and advised him to do so. But when it became clear that Mubarak was finished, they backed away from him, worried about being on the wrong side of Egypt’s historic new direction and feeling that they had no choice but to accept his exit.
The Obama team supported elections after Mubarak’s departure, not because they wanted the Brotherhood to gain power but because they felt that credible elections were the only process that would create a stable government with legitimacy in the eyes of the mobilized Egyptian population. U.S. officials were not enthusiastic about the possibility of an Islamist victory. They worried that an Islamist-led government might change the direction of Egyptian foreign policy and that such a government might reduce cooperation on counterterrorism.
They also believed that if they took a negative line toward Islamists in the election this would only strengthen the Islamists’ ability to play the anti-American card in their campaign and increase their hostility to Washington once in power. And thus the Obama team did not express any preference with regard to the outcome of the parliamentary or presidential elections.
When Morsi took power, the U.S. administration resolved to get along with him. This was not intended as a pro-Brotherhood policy but as a pro-Egyptian government policy, an effort to continue the long pattern of close cooperation between Washington and Cairo. As Morsi began governing, the U.S administration fell back into the same habit it displayed for decades with Mubarak: as long as the Egyptian leader did not question the peace treaty with Israel, was helpful in negotiations with the Palestinians, and allowed U.S. and Egyptian security cooperation, he would get U.S. support, no matter how undemocratically he governed.
Caught by surprise again last summer (as in early 2011) by massive popular protests and the sudden departure of another Egyptian president, the Obama administration struggled to define a coherent approach. Washington was not especially sorry to see Morsi go and never called for his restoration. The Obama team made sure to avoid using the word “coup” in reference to the change of government, because using that word would invoke legal restrictions on U.S. aid that would make it hard for the United States to continue close cooperation with the Egyptian military. U.S. officials assumed they would be able to establish strong ties with whoever next ended up as president. Israel’s deep pleasure at the ouster of Morsi reverberated strongly in conservative circles in Washington, and within parts of the administration.
It was only after the August events at Rabaa that the administration was critical, though it still limited itself to statements of “concern.” These concerns were not support for Morsi or the Brotherhood; they reflected a humanitarian concern about the use of such harsh violence against citizens. They were also was rooted in pragmatic thinking—the fear that such tactics would contribute to radicalization and greater violence on the part of some Islamists. It was this latter rationale that lay behind U.S. calls for reconciliation or inclusion—the fear that a repressive line would generate greater radicalization and instability.
With the presidential and parliamentary elections now approaching, the Obama administration is preparing to normalize relations over the course of this year. This will likely involve lifting the partial suspension of aid, increasing regular high-level visits to Washington of top Egyptian officials, and returning to business as usual on diplomatic and security cooperation. As during Mubarak’s and Morsi’s rule, this stance will not be based on an underlying preference for any political group or figure in Egypt but on the basic desire to get along with whoever is in power.
In short, there is unquestionably much to criticize in U.S. policy toward Egypt over many years, both during Mubarak’s time and since then. U.S. policy has been focused on getting along with whoever runs Egypt, for the sake of ensuring useful strategic benefits to the United States, even if those leaders do not demonstrate any real commitment to democracy, rights, or helping ordinary Egyptians. Given this reality, it is natural and justified for Egyptians to be disappointed and resentful. The United States has not been the friend they wish it were to the Egyptian people. But the flaws of U.S. policy have not included any built-in preference on the part of Washington for Islamists or a desire to see Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood.
I am always impressed how much and how deeply many Egyptians care about what the United States thinks, says, and does with respect to their country. I hope they will focus their dissatisfaction on those issues where the United States really has gone wrong. By diverting their attention to an incorrect reading of the U.S. approach, they are not making the best use of the legitimate power they have to urge the United States to be a more principled, effective, and valued partner to all Egyptians.