Sometimes when I find myself exposed to US policy regarding Egypt, I hear a lot of commentary from American researchers and journalists. What draws my attention most with regards to some of these commentaries, and attracts the most displeasure with regards to the volume of criticism levelled against American policy throughout the region, is when the following question is asked: What do Egyptians want exactly? Often times this question is itself hidden, or is asked as a precursor to another question which is: Why do Egyptians hate us to the extent that they do?
The reality is that the position of Egyptians regarding the US often shocks citizens of the latter, raising a number of questions. Some within Egypt’s political spectrum accuse their opponents of being loyal to, or sometimes acting as agents for, the US, if the position of the US is not perfectly in line with their own interests. If, however, the position of the US on a given issue happens to favour their interests, they will rejoice and celebrate.
It is the right of all those participating in politics, and particularly the Americans, to ask such people the following questions: Do you want American support or not? And will such support hurt or benefit your position? What shocks many people from within a number of American political circles is that many within Egypt, regardless of their political affiliation, are careful in their meetings with American officials to explain how their position is compatible with that of Washington and helps achieve American interests, or at the very least, does not conflict with such interests. Some, and perhaps many, of the same people will oftentimes, when appearing in front of the Egyptian public, make themselves out to be opponents and resistors of US foreign policy in the region, sometimes going so far to say they are in fact enemies of the United States.
This has especially begun to take place over the last year, after it became clear that the United States supported the Muslim Brotherhood, with criticism of the former becoming like a “tape measure” used to gauge the patriotism of an individual. I am not talking here about the left, which has inherited a deep-rooted hostility towards the American “empire”, but rather the political elite which is split between liberals, supporters of the nationalist state and the country’s social democratic forces.
I agree that the structure of Egyptian-US relations and the questions it raises, do not only have to do with the positions of the elite with regards to Washington, but also the United State’s position with regards to Egypt and the rest of the region. However, I will try in this article to focus exclusively on the positions of the elite.
I would like to recount a story for the purpose of raising additional questions and increasing one’s sense of shock, as this may be the best and most appropriate way to help us reach an answer. The story begins after the outbreak of a crisis several years ago between the state and civil society organisations. I was one of the few people at the time working within civil society and in the field of human rights, who agreed to hold meetings with prominent political figures in an attempt to decipher how best to solve the crisis at hand.
One of these figures was a well respected political science professor who was close to some of the influential decision markers in the country, particularly those affiliated with Gamal Mubarak. In our discussions, this professor said that within the ranks of the military and security apparatuses, there existed strong doubts and suspicions regarding the US intentions towards Egypt, and in particular those civil society organisations that received funding from the United States, and the role they would play in helping to serve such intentions.
When my colleagues and I heard such talk we found ourselves dumbfounded and consumed with laughter. The same occurred with a number of friends of mine to whom I told the story, as it was well known during this time that the Mubarak regime was, at its best, pro-US, and at its worst, an agent in support of its interests. That being said, how could members of such a regime have fears regarding the actions of civil society organisations, accusing them of being agents of the United States who were plotting against Egypt?
Several years after this, I was arrested and held under investigation on charges of coordinating with the Popular Committee to support the Palestinian intifada. While being detained, one of the security officers was speaking on the phone with one of his superiors, commenting on a military operation recently conducted against Israel, and said: “Praise be to God…now the Americans will realise how tough we really are!” Upon telling this last story to a number of friends, I would often ask jokingly, how can someone arrest me for supporting the Palestinians and at the same time express happiness over the success of a military operation launched against Israel?
I think the ruling elite, and in particular those from within the ranks of the country’s military and security apparatuses who support the notion of a “nationalist state”, have felt a deep sense of bitterness towards the US since the days of Anwar El-Sadat, who decided to shift Egypt’s loyalty from the Soviet Union to the United States, assuming that in doing so Egypt would find itself at the head of the empire governing the region. This was a position that Egypt had sought to occupy since first losing its independence long ago to the Persians.
The irony which struck this elite was that Washington was not only not satisfied with making Israel the acting manager of Egypt, reducing the latter to a “second class” nation, but it also sought to involve itself in Egypt’s internal affairs. Many within Egypt, as was clarified by Saad Zahran in his book, The Roots of Egyptian Policy, were in fact willing to help serve the “empire’s” foreign policy and defence interests in the region, in exchange for being allowed to administer and run the internal affairs of Egypt itself. Egypt’s elite thought Washington would consider them a partner, along with Israel, and that if Egypt was not thought of as superior to Israel, it would at least be thought of its equal.
I would like to mention here Allawi Hafez, one of the members of the Free Officers who was known for supporting the United States and favouring peace with Israel, in addition to generally approving of most of the policies put forth by El-Sadat, who said, as part of his election propaganda in 1976 several years before the peace treaty with Israel: “we need to reconcile ourselves with Israel…sitting alongside them, nursing from America’s breast, while Israel nurses from the other.”
The United States disappointed those elites, not only placing them in a meagre state of weakness, but also intervening in Egypt’s internal affairs and involving themselves in what the latter considered to be their own personal jurisdiction, imposing their will on the elites who felt they were the stronger and more capable of the two parties. Naturally, such facts led the elite to feel a great deal of obsession and concern over US intentions, while simultaneously pushing them to feel as if their own personal interests were the same as that of the country as a whole.
This grew to the point that any breaking up of the elite would be looked at as the same as the breaking of the country, largely for the benefit of Israel, which the elite sought to cooperate and live in peace with. They were shocked to consider then, that any attempt to destroy the country’s elite and remove them from the political playing field, for the benefit of both Israel and the United States, would require that the latter two use and obtain the support of some members of the elite. Is this a reality that Egypt’s “statist” elite could ever bring themselves to accept?
The United States holds its nose up to Egypt’s elite and deals with them in arrogance, acting as if they are more knowledgeable than the latter regarding Egypt and the region as a whole, and more capable of administering the affairs of both. On the other hand the elite, as wise and experienced as they are, are aware that they would be unable, even if they wanted, to break ranks with the “empire” that currently governs the region. That being said they try every day to prove to Washington that they are the stronger, more capable party, who when necessary can enforce its will, even if this requires “making America’s life difficult” by sabotaging their plans in the region, and if need be, chasing down and sometimes even arresting their citizens.
I intend to return to this discussion later in future articles, however from a different angle, in which I seek to discuss America’s position regarding Egypt.