The polls have closed, and the result was never in doubt. With a whopping majority, Egyptians have chosen Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be their next president. Much like his several predecessors going back to 1952 when army officers overthrew King Farouk, the new president brings to office ambitious plans to whip his countrymen into shape.
What Egyptians need, Sisi believes, is discipline. He has volunteered for the role of drill sergeant-in-chief. ‘Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at five in the morning every day? Will you bear cutting back on food, cutting back on air-conditioners?’ We may take such posturing with a grain of salt, along with announced plans to make the desert bloom, reform Egypt’s bureaucracy, and solve the country’s energy problems by installing high-efficiency light bulbs in every home.
Egypt is a genuine democracy in this respect: prior to an election, candidates make absurd promises that they have no intention of keeping. In every other respect, Egypt is an oligarchy, an enterprise that exists to serve the interests of two overlapping constituencies: the officer corps and a wealthy business elite.
The chief priority of the army officer serving as Egypt’s president, his true allegiance partly camouflaged by the civvies he wears to work, is not to modernise and certainly not to democratise Egypt but to preserve the status quo. Change would imperil the existing allocation of privileges. Whatever the vote count, Sisi’s mandate is to retain the present allocation. Thus does the political tradition founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s and carried on by his successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak persist.
For most of that period, the United States, self-proclaimed avatar of modernity and democracy, has supported and sustained this oligarchy. In the 1970s, the United States accepted Sadat’s offer to reorient Egypt toward the West. In exchange for him kicking out the Soviets and making peace with Israel, Washington promised to pay Cairo a generous annual stipend. It also turned a blind eye to Egypt’s shortcomings when it came to human rights, press freedom and manifestly rigged elections. Between 1981 and 1999, for example, when Mubarak ‘won’ re-election at regular six-year intervals with vote tallies well above 90 per cent, Washington offered only token criticism. Throughout this period, billions of dollars of weapons and economic aid poured forth, as did White House tributes to Mubarak as a close and trusted friend, enlightened statesmen, and partner in the pursuit of lasting peace.
In reality, the US-Egyptian relationship was a transactional one. Values, trust and friendship figured at best as an afterthought. The bond was never between peoples joined by a sense of kinship or between countries sharing a common destiny. It was between states, or more specifically between the American security apparatus and its Egyptian counterpart.
The relationship endured because for a time it satisfied the immediate interests of both parties. So in 1990, for example, while gearing up for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Washington welcomed Mubarak’s offer of Egyptian troops not because it needed the additional combat power but to put an Arab face on the US-led coalition. In return, Mubarak pocketed several tens of billions of dollars in debt forgiveness. Arguably, this bargain — American dollars in exchange for Egyptian co-operation — helped prop up a precarious regional stability.
After 9/11, the administration of George W. Bush lost all interest in stability. It expected and demanded change, not least of all in Egypt. In a 2005 speech delivered in Cairo, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice declared that henceforth the United States would no longer ‘pursue stability at the expense of democracy’ in the Middle East. ‘We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all peoples,’ she said, her all emphatically including Egyptians.
Rice proceeded to instruct Egypt’s government on things that it ‘must’ do: recognise basic individual freedoms, establish an independent judiciary, and conduct honest, competitive elections. Anything less was unacceptable. In effect, Rice signalled that the United States no longer felt itself bound by the old terms of the US-Egyptian relationship.
Mubarak wasted no time in responding. That same year, he again ran for re-election, winning an obviously fraudulent 88.6 per cent of the votes cast. His government’s annual stipend from the American taxpayer continued. In effect, Mubarak not only stiffed Washington but got away with it. Contemptuous of stability, but with its hands full in destabilised Iraq, the Bush administration concluded that the moment was not opportune for taking on Egypt as well.
Still, in 2009, the newly inaugurated President Barak Obama affirmed that the old ways of doing business no longer pertained. His own wide-ranging Cairo speech called for ‘a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.’ As applied to US-Egyptian relations, Obama’s agenda, including democracy, women’s rights and religious liberty, effectively invited Egyptians to rise up against their government.
Yet when that uprising occurred in 2011, Obama had second thoughts. As he dithered, the Egyptian officer corps, now led by Sisi, acted. Concluding that Mubarak had become an impediment, the army — pretending to act on the people’s behalf — ousted him from office. And when the subsequent elections, which were easily the most honest in Egyptian history, brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, buyer’s remorse on the part of some Egyptians gave the army a pretext to mount a coup. Mubarak was out. The Brotherhood was out. Sisi was in.
The toppling of President Mohamed Morsi, followed by a crackdown that killed hundreds of Islamists and imprisoned thousands more, abruptly terminated Egypt’s experiment in democracy, thereby ensuring, at least for now, the survival of Egypt’s military-run oligarchy. To all of this, the United States responded meekly. Acceding to Morsi’s overthrow with barely disguised relief, it ever so gently rebuked Sisi by temporarily suspending US arms transfers — a suspension that is already in the process of being lifted.
The United States thus finds itself today looking both hypocritical and more than slightly ridiculous. To call for democratic change and then reverse course when elections produce an outcome not to your liking is hypocrisy. To do essentially nothing while Sisi employs US-manufactured arms as instruments of repression is to broadcast Washington’s lack of influence, not to mention backbone.
To think that the United States can redeem the situation, ensuring the triumph of virtue, is fanciful. At the end of the day, Egypt’s fate rests in Egyptian hands. In the meantime, however, mere self-respect demands that the United States terminate any and all support to Sisi’s army. As Ms Rice might phrase it, this is something that Washington ‘must’ do.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.