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July 8, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Civil Disagreement: Egypt, and America’s interest

The military overthrow of the elected civilian government in Egypt–a very unpopular government of the Muslim Brotherhood–has left the U.S. government in the position of feeling powerless while being blamed for exercising power. What should Americans think of this? Editorial board members Bruce Ramsey and Lynne K. Varner have their own takes on it.






Lynne, I’m tired of America’s interference in places like Egypt. Americans don’t get this. We’re used to being No. 1, the top dog, the people who get to manage the Earth. But we don’t have a right to that authority; we have let the academics and politicians who itch for the joys of global management talk us into believing we have a moral duty to do it. Foreigners think Americans do it because there is profit in it. Sometimes there is, but there are also losses.

To my understanding, Egypt has been the No. 1 recipient of U.S. government aid, or No. 2 after Israel, since the Jimmy Carter administration. What benefit did the U.S. taxpayer get for that? That Egypt didn’t attack Israel? Last time Egypt attacked Israel, in 1973, the Egyptian army had its pants pulled down. Also, Israel has nuclear weapons. I could be totally mistaken, but I’ll hazard to assert that Egypt does not need to be bribed to let Israel alone.

And if it did, who should pay that bribe, eh?

Look at where this aid gets Americans. Our government underwrites Egypt’s military. Egypt has an election: Democracy! Yay! Arab Spring! Whoopee! The Muslim Brotherhood is elected to power, promising to have an inclusive government. Well, it lied. It isn’t inclusive. It demonizes its opponents as traitors. Three years in, Egyptians don’t want that government any more. Egypt’s military, with all its U.S. tanks and guns, takes over in a coup.

What happened is all the valuable influence bought by U.S. aid? The New York Times reports frustration at the White House because of “lack of leverage the United States has over Egypt.”

Our ambassador there, Anne Patterson, an official almost no American has heard of, is a huge public figure in Egypt, her face on signs, crossed out as if she were Satan. Says the New York Times, she is “a symbol for angry young Egyptians of America’s meddlesome role in their country’s affairs.”

Has the U.S. government been meddlesome? Yup.

And what is the U.S. government’s attitude toward the coup? We’re Americans. We don’t believe in military coups. We believe in elections, and civilian government. Ambassador Patterson said she was “deeply skeptical” that “street action will produce better results than elections.” As an American, what else could she say? That put her against the people in the street. But the U.S. government was also deeply skeptical of the Muslim Brotherhood government, because it was run by zealots who didn’t like liberty or democracy or the United States.

Result: The U.S. ambassador’s face is crossed out by both sides.

The goal of U.S. foreign policy should be the advancement of the legitimate interests of the United States. To me that means the protection of American citizens in Egypt, and in the neighborhood of Egypt, and of some rules for trade, investment, intellectual property, fishing rights, tourism, educational exchanges, extradition, etc., between Egypt and the United States. Our government has taken a much more vague and permissive view of what American interests are in Egypt and other places, and what sorts of things our politicians, and our military, are allowed to do in pursuit of these amorphous interests.

People with power like to use it, and will embrace political language that allows them to do what they want.

One of those chocolate bars of permissive language is “nation-building.” I don’t think it is part of the U.S. government’s job to go around the world building nations. I’m just a narrow-minded isolationist that way, Lynne. I look at this and think, “not our business.”  We didn’t like it when the British were nation-building here, with their taxes and their redcoats, and we killed a bunch of them back in the 1770s and 1780s until they left us alone. It was a glorious thing, and last Thursday we celebrated it with fireworks. We wanted the British, and all the other European powers, out.

Should we be surprised that the Egyptians want the American government out? I’d want it out, if I were Egyptian.

I remember when the Philippines closed the U.S. bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay. They wanted the Americans out, not because they hated America (they don’t) or hated democracy (they don’t), but because it was their country and they didn’t want the former imperial power interfering with their politics (which we did). They kicked us out, and see if you can find a Filipino who regrets it.

varner,lynne-webWow Bruce, I haven’t seen you this worked up since interest rates started to fall! You’re right to be upset. Egypt is a mess. The leadership of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government is over. This Washington Post photo gallery offers vivid testament to the power of tens of millions of Egyptians to press for new leadershp.

Unfortunately, that alone is not enough. The Arab Spring protests spurred change, but they did not by themselves have enough power and influence to do the heavy lifting needed to totally break with repressive governments. The guy who led Egypt before Morsi, Hosni Mubarak, was deposed through the combined efforts of a popular uprising and pressure from other countries, including the U.S.  President Obama last week traveling in Africa, justified helping to get rid of Mubarak:

…”When I took a position that it was time for Egypt to transition, it was based on the fact that Egypt had not had a democratic government for decades, if ever.  And that’s what the people were calling for.”

So what will the U.S. do this time? Take away Egypt’s $1.5 billion annual allowance? Scramble the jets? The latter is unlikely. President Obama is keeping his options open, he said last week.

“The way we make decisions about assistance to Egypt is based on: Are they in fact following rule of law and democratic procedures?  And we don’t make those decisions just by counting the number of heads in a protest march, but we do make decisions based on whether or not a government is listening to the opposition, maintaining a free press, maintaining freedom of assembly, not using violence or intimidation, conducting fair and free elections.

Taking a hands-off approach to Egypt is not an option for many reasons, Bruce. The reason to stay involved in Egypt is not out of fear Egypt will attack Israel.  As you pointed out Israel can take care of itself. But the stability of the Middle East is an important U.S. concern.

We also care about preventing terrorism from taking root.

We care about democracy. We enjoy a democratic form of government here. We know the life-altering power of freedom and we want people in other countries to experience it. Hence, nationbuilding.

It is not certain how President Obama will handle the latest changes in Egypt. The country is falling apart. An interim president appointed what some are calling a military coup is not a democratic change in government.  Moreover, Egypt needs a government to run the country’s day-to-day affairs. The government has to be transparent and accountable to the people. That kind of leadership is typically produced via election. Hopefully, Egypt will have a new government soon. Power vacuums can be dangerous, particularly in the Middle East.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman was pessimistic in a column entitled, “Egypt’s perilous drift.”

If the U.S. is to help Egypt shift toward not only a democratically-elected government, but toward leaders who actually lead based on what the people want, this country will have to get deeply involved in nationbuilding. The key is applying pressure through our long relationship with Egypt and our generous aid package.  The U.S. provides Egypt with $1.5 billion a year, according to State Department figures. That money can and should be directed and redirected to yield results America wants.

I would not cut aid to Egypt. But I would change where it is going. Right now, most of that goes to the military, Time for the U.S. to distance itself from Egypt’s military. Ordinary Egyptians chafe at our coziness with their military strongmen, hence the nickname for America is the sarcastic, “Mother.”

If we are truly only promoting democracy, we have to team up with democratic leaders only. The Egyptian military does not fit the definition.

Comments | Topics: Egypt, Middle East, military coup


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