Egypt: Time & Trouble: Part Four of Four

In turbulent period, U.S. has been an inconsistent partner

Egypt 2006

By Eric Ringham

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – They oppose our efforts in Iraq, they question our belligerrence toward Iran, they resent our relationship with Israel, they hate our interference in their affairs - and, in the Arab world, these are our friends.

It would be one thing to have the trust of the Egyptian people but not their government, or of the government but not the people. Instead, we've managed to earn the distrust of the government and the people. It might be one of the few ways in which they agree.

From all sides in Egypt - young and old, religious and secular, autocrat and democrat - the critique of U.S. policy follows common themes: Americans are inconsistent friends and poor role models. They fail to live up to their stated ideals. They champion democracy, but punish choices they don't like.

"America has to show people in this part of the world that it is fair," said Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

"Freedom is for everyone, for me and for you," said the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, one of Egypt's leading religious authorities. "Or is it just yours to enjoy? That's the question."

"U.S. support has become a liability for us," said Hossam Bahgat, a human-rights advocate, who called it "unhelpful" that the Americans had begun eavesdropping and mistreating prisoners "just like Egypt."

Those outside the circle of power slam the United States for propping up the government of President Hosni Mubarak. The roughly $2 billion that Egypt gets in U.S. aid every year, they argue, has bought a corrupt ally that delivers "stability" at any price.

Mubarak has begun to openly disparage the United States - for example, accusing it of employing a double standard for Iran's and Israel's nuclear programs and declaring that he doesn't take orders from Washington. If he's trying to distance himself from the U.S. administration, his opponents don't buy it.

"We don't believe they [the U.S. government] want to push reform," said Hisham Bastawisi, a senior judge whose career has been jeopardized by his criticisms of the regime and who suffered a heart attack last week. He said U.S. officials at times voice support for the reform movement but then seem to back the government. People are scared, he said, that if they stand up for their rights, "the world will stand by and watch them be beaten to a pulp."

If the American administration is ambivalent, it has reason to be. Egypt is short of secular democrats - people like the legislator Ayman Nour, who's in prison for five years.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are being arrested under Egypt's perpetual emergency law, note that the United States protests Nour's case but not theirs. They accuse the administration of favoring free elections only so long as it likes the winners, and cite the treatment of Hamas as proof. The United States "punishes the Palestinians for their choice" by withdrawing aid, said a Brotherhood official.

Like Hamas, the Brothers enjoy wide support. They won 88 seats in parliamentary elections late last year, a figure that would have been higher if violence had not disrupted the voting.

This is the real challenge confronting the United States in Egypt: If asked, the people might elect extreme Islamist candidates who see U.S. support for Israel - the "Zionist entity" - as intolerable. The political middle class has been systematically starved, so the choice apparently lies between the autocrats now in power and the theocrats waiting in the wings.

It's a choice that frightens moderates, favors the Mubarak regime, hurts the prospects of the Egyptian people, and puts the United States in a bad spot.