Is the United States government, and the State Department in particular, receiving good counsel from its advisors about Egypt? Egypt is the recipient of America’s second largest aid package at $2.1 billion annually. And yet the democratic reforms Egypt’s government has promised have failed to materialize, and the little progress that has been made is quickly being reversed. Egypt consistently ranks near the bottom globally in upholding human rights standards. And of particular importance to the U.S., the Egyptian government’s actions are often in direct contradiction to the best interests of America in the Middle East.
But most advisors on the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, counsel the U.S. government to accept the status quo, and especially not to attach conditions to the aid package in order to encourage change. If Egypt is supposed to be America’s strongest ally in the Middle East and is actually working against the U.S. in many ways, and if in spite of this Egypt is to continue receiving billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. government, is this good advice?
There is of a particular tribe of Americans who have spent a great deal of time in Egypt, who speak the language, who fell in love with the country, and who because of these feelings have become friendly with the Egyptian government and its supporters – so much so that they almost become one of them. And it seems that the people who fall into this category have the ears of Washington policymakers.
At a fundraiser for Rep. Frank Wolf in October, Sen. John McCain said that Egypt is a good friend to America in the Middle East. McCain’s statement seems indicative of the current prevailing mode of thought in the U.S. government, the State Department in particular, and among those who advise them on Egypt. This thinking is misguided and damaging to U.S. foreign policy.
The truth is that the Egyptian government practices a two-faced policy regarding the United States. The face Egypt shows America is the one that government officials and their advisors are referring to when they speak of Egypt as America’s friend and ally. This is the face that assures the U.S. that Egypt is doing all it can to fight and contain terrorism in the Middle East and to promote America’s interests regarding Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
But the other face is the true face of the Egyptian government that is shown to its citizens and other Middle Eastern countries. It is obvious to Egyptian-Americans when we see the news or read the papers from Egypt. This is the face of the Egyptian government that encourages radical thinking and promotes it through its educational system, the media and all forms of communication with its citizens in their everyday lives. This policy is reflected clearly in changes in Egyptian society and the Middle East in general toward radicalism and Islamism in the past 30 years in particular. Two obvious examples of the promotion of radicalism by the Egyptian government come to mind:
The uproar about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed was in large part encouraged, if not orchestrated, by Egyptian officials. On Oct. 17, 2005, the cartoons in question were published in an Egyptian newspaper along with an article that strongly denounced them, but there were no protests from either the Egyptian government or religious authorities. Over 2 months later, the Egyptian Ambassador to Denmark, Mona Omar Attia, stirred up a hornet’s nest by stating that the Danish Prime Minister had not responded in a way that was appropriate to “appease the whole Muslim world” and organizing international Muslim groups to take up the cause. Then at a meeting of leaders from the world’s 57 Muslim nations in Mecca, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Aboul Gheit, circulated a report about the cartoons and other purported anti-Islamic activities in Denmark that further inflamed the Muslim world. The problem was that the report contained a great deal of erroneous information and Gheit knew it. Two Egyptians took a non-issue and manipulated it into an anti-Western crusade that culminated in violent protests worldwide.
At the beginning of the recent Lebanon-Israel War, the Egyptian government placed the blame for the conflict squarely on Hezbollah in its communications with the U.S. and Israel. At the same time, however, local media encouraged Egyptian citizens to demonstrate in support of Hezbollah. They promoted the portrayal of Hezbollah as the brave David standing against the aggression of the giant Israel with its U.S. backing. And today Hezbollah is perceived by Egyptians as a band of heroes who were the only ones who could defeat Israel. We cannot forget that after Mubarak blamed Hezbollah on the first day of the war, a few days later he called for an unconditional cease-fire that was in direct opposition to U.S. policy at that time.
Sadly, advisors to the State Department seem to downplay such blatant anti-American and anti-Western actions in favor of promoting the current policies of the Egyptian government.
In June of 2006, the House debated the Obey/Hyde/Lantos amendment to the 2007 Foreign Appropriations Bill on June 8, 2006. The amendment would have held back $100 million in U.S. aid to Egypt in response to the Egyptian government’s abysmal human rights record. The bill was defeated by a surprisingly narrow margin, but by it not passing, Egypt was basically given a free license to cease any efforts to reform its government, to continue with its flagrant violations of human rights and to continue to work against the U.S. in the Middle East.
This vote was followed up by a hearing about U.S. aid to Egypt that was held before the House International Relations Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia on June 21, 2006. At this hearing, various experts were engaged to brief the Subcommittee about the U.S. aid package to Egypt. While the testimony was mixed in its recommendations, much of the advice counseled accepting the status quo and looking to the future for any substantive change. Certain advisors even counseled that attaching any contingencies to the aid package would not only fail to prod the Egyptian government to change its ways, but might actually backfire on the U.S. and produce a recalcitrant anti-American response.
This hearing, just weeks after the amendment vote, would have been a perfect opportunity for top advisors on Egypt to educate the Subcommittee about the true nature of Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. so that they might debate the issue in the future with more knowledge about the situation. Testimony given on behalf of the Leadership Council for Human Rights did just this, but most of the other testimony sought to sweep problems under the rug and advocated the status quo. This acceptance of the current situation and implicit faith that the next generation will be more U.S.-friendly is a tacit acceptance of the face the Egyptian government wants America to see. Those who advise this government should have the ability, desire and capability to look beyond the surface at what is really going on in Egypt and the courage to expose the ugly face of anti-Americanism espoused by the Egyptian regime.
The American government, and especially the State Department, needs to see the other face of Egypt’s government. The State Department must widen its circle of advisors to include people who are more knowledgeable about Egyptian intentions and actions that are not obvious to America. The current lack of understanding of the true motivations of the U.S.’s most important ally in the Middle East is terribly damaging to our interests in that region and can no longer be ignored.
An often heard claim is that America has no power to effect change in Egypt through placing conditions on aid. History, however, shows a different reality. When Saad Eddin Ibrahim was unjustly convicted and imprisoned, it was only when America cut a post-9/11 supplemental aid package of $150 million that Egypt was spurred to overturn his conviction. Without pressure from the U.S., Ibrahim might well still be in prison. If the current advisors to the White House and the State Department provide information to the government that only reflects the views of people who choose to see Egypt’s U.S.-friendly face, we as Americans and our government will endorse the following:
Egypt will continue to indirectly promote radical Islam, which is the largest cause of the terrorism that is threatening the civilized world. If this is allowed to continue, Iraq will become a breeding ground for more and more radicals, creating an increasingly volatile situation. And from Egypt and Iraq, even more terrorism will crop up around the globe.
In the Middle East sectarian fighting is prevalent and indeed is the basis for most conflict. One need only look to Lebanon where Christians fight against the Muslim Hezbollah, to Iraq where Sunni fight Shia, and to Sudan where Arab Muslims fight African Muslims. As the cultural leader in the region, Egypt should be setting an example of tolerance and cooperation between various religious factions within its own borders. Egypt’s population, both Muslim and Christian, have lived in general peace and harmony for centuries until relatively recent times when a government encouraged campaign of intolerance against Coptic Christians has promoted never before seen divisions within the country. By endorsing the status quo, America will support the government of Egypt in its continued suppression, discrimination and devastation of the Copts, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, which has been in Egypt for 2,000 years. The following are just a few of the ways in which Copts are discriminated against: Copts are denied basic economic, educational and social opportunities, governmental representation, due process in legal matters and basic civil rights. Copts are admitted in very small numbers to military schools and security training centers and are not allowed to advance to top military and civilian posts. They are not allowed to build or even repair churches without express governmental permission, which is rarely granted. And although Copts comprise 12-15% of Egypt’s total population, they are represented by only 2% of Parliamentary seats. And in a few years if the trend continues, Egypt may face a disastrous situation in regards to its Coptic population, and then we in America will truly regret our country’s lack of action.
Ayman Nour, the hope of democracy in Egypt, the person who captured 1 million votes in the 2005 presidential election after only being allowed to campaign for 3 weeks, the one man who truly believes in American-style democracy, will remain in jail for another four years. And the Egyptian government will continue to eliminate all opposition parties in the field except the Muslim Brotherhood so it can say to the world that there are only two options: the Mubarak regime or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Voices advocating freedom in Egypt, like Talaat Sadat, nephew of the late President Anwar Sadat, will continue to be actively suppressed. The younger Sadat was one of very few opposition voices in Parliament, and the government arranged for the Army to court martial him in a military court for speaking out about his belief that there were Army officers involved in his uncle’s assassination. Sadat was not only deprived of his right to speak freely, he was stripped of his Parliamentary seat and sentenced to prison for a year. This all took place because Sadat is a strong, frank opposition voice unafraid to speak out against government corruption. Sadat’s court martial was merely an excuse to eliminate his dissenting voice from the Parliament.
Women will be deprived of their rights and their freedom. Egypt, once the most progressive and liberal country for women’s rights, has been sliding steadily backward in this area over the last 30 years with the rise of Islamism and radicalism. If the Egyptian government’s current policies go unchecked, women in Egypt will have few rights and no safety. That this is already happening can be seen in the kidnappings of young Christian girls and the open harassment of women that has been plaguing the streets of Cairo in recent times.
In the last 30 years, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the equivalent of the Vatican to Roman Catholicism in terms of its influence on Muslim thought, has become increasingly radical and conservative. Because Al-Azhar sets the tone for Muslim thinking around the world, this escalating push toward extremism is being exported to Muslim countries all over the globe, thereby providing even more fertile soil for the breeding of terrorism. Failure on the part of the American government to recognize this trend and to press the Egyptian government to curb it will result in increased danger globally.
It is absolutely crucial that the U.S. government begin to find advisors who will give it an accurate appraisal of what is really going on in Egypt. Only when it is armed with correct information will our government be able to craft a foreign policy in regards to Egypt that is in the best interests of America.