Washington and Cairo: America's Bitter Awakening
Western countries, it appears, deluded themselves about the so-called Arab Spring and the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
Since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, it has received $70 billion from the United States in military and civilian grants. Civilian grants were intended to help improve education, infrastructure and develop the economy, as well as further democracy. Grants to the army were meant to ensure the stability of the country and help Egypt sustain its role as a leader of the Arab world against Iran and terror organizations.
Hundreds of modern F-16 planes, Abrams tanks and other state-of-the-art materiel replaced outdated Soviet-era equipment. Joint exercises were held; thousands of officers were sent to the US for advanced training, in the hope that they would discover and appreciate the merits of democracy.
During the long rule of Hosni Mubarak the army was often called "the silent partner." Generals did not try to interfere in the ruling of the country, though they quietly started taking over greater and greater segments of the economy. First military industries then industrial and trade companies; the army now holds about one third of the economy. The partnership was not always one-sided: during the great bread crisis of 2008, the army started baking bread and selling it at reduced prices to ease the shortage.
Army leaders were careful not to let Islamist militants into their ranks. They remembered only too well the Sadat assassination, carried out in 1981 by a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement during a military parade.
Mubarak, who had survived that day, was convinced that by favoring his generals and letting them enrich themselves he would ensure their continuing loyalty and support.
Yet it took only one week of violent street demonstrations in Cairo for America to abandon its ally of 43 years and for President Barack Obama to tell Mubarak to go. He probably thought that freed of the chains of dictatorship, a new regime would turn to democracy and strengthen its ties with America. It was a very bad miscalculation.
There was an outpouring of hatred towards the United States; worse, extremist Islamic parties won 75 percent of the seats of the new parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood, reaping the results of years of grassroots activism and surfing on the wave of a system furthering Islamic education from first grade to graduation, defeated democracy by knock-out.
What now? America watches impotently as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) now ruling Egypt emulates Mubarak: security forces turn on demonstrators with a vengeance, killing dozens of civilians and wounding thousands as well as imprisoning hundreds. The same Council accused the American University of Cairo, situated not far from Tahrir Square, of fomenting troubles; worse, it stated that shots had been fired from that institution toward security forces which had no choice but to return fire - thus killing protesters. The generals may have been trying to deflect criticism in a time-honored Egyptian manner by throwing the blame on another - and America made a convenient scapegoat.
Then came the December raid on 17 NGOs, including well known American civil organizations. Documents were seized, offices closed in what was seen as a deliberate provocation against America. A government set up and controlled by the SCAF could not have acted without the open support of the army. Though Egypt insists that it is a purely legal issue and that the organizations did not have the necessary permits to operate, adding that they should apply to register and would then be allowed to re-open, it is not a satisfactory explanation: instead of launching the raids with no advance warning, why not first warn the United States that if the organizations did not register within a given number of days or weeks, sanctions would be taken? In the meantime 43 NGO employees, including 19 American citizens, are being prevented from leaving the country.
Some of the Americans have taken refuge in their embassy.
The SCAF appears unfazed by the turn of events, as if it has come to the conclusion that channeling against the hated Americans the frustration of increasingly disillusioned masses who have yet to see some positive results of the revolution is a sound political move. Both the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists, who view American democracy as their most dangerous enemy, support them. When Congress threatened to cut off aid, public opinion polls showed that 71% of the Egyptians declared that Egypt did not need that money and that they could get the same amount from Arab states, a position which was backed by Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri as well as by the head of Al-Azhar University.
However, and at the same time, Issam Alarian, one of the leaders of the Brotherhood, warned that should the Americans stop their aid, it would lead to a review of the peace treaty with Israel, since, he claimed, American aid was part of that treaty. Which is obviously false; there is no mention of that help in the treaty. The US has been assisting Egypt as part of their strategic alliance.
Egypt, which has pledged to honor its international engagements, must respect a treaty it has signed and which has greatly contributed to its stability.
But what happened to the much touted friendship between American top brass and their Egyptian counterparts? What about a little gratitude for the considerable sums poured into Egypt to help the country's development and the modernization of its army? What about the generations of young officers who studied and trained in the US? Is the SCAF ready to forgo all this, perhaps trying to curry favor with the Brothers in the hope that they will not look too closely at the army's attitude during the Mubarak years? American public opinion is increasingly incensed; a number of Congressmen call for a suspension of American aid until NGO employees are being allowed to leave. However, the Obama administration, while well aware that it has to do something, is reluctant to take a stand which might put an end to the strategic cooperation with Egypt.
To sum up: far from leading to greater openness and democracy, the ouster of Mubarak has led to brutal oppression and an open rift with the United States - but that country is not ready to come to terms with the outbreak of anti- American feelings or with the fact that its strategic alliance is a thing of the past. As for the Muslim Brothers, though well aware of the importance of American aid, they see in democratic America a major stumbling block on the road to setting up an Islamic regime in Egypt and doing away with the peace treaty with Israel.