As the Obama administration issues predictable declarations of support for Egyptian democracy, it is quietly longing for a return to the Mubarak era of an obedient military dictatorship that submissively conforms to U.S. demands.
Last week President Obama once again proclaimed his support for the Egyptian people’s “aspirations for political freedom.” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Egyptian military’s vicious crackdown on Islamist protesters as “deplorable,” saying it “run[s] counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy.”
But it’s easy to see through these meaningless words. You just have to look at U.S. policy, instead of U.S. rhetoric.
Since the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi (himself no laudable democrat), Washington has stood firmly against democratic principles. The Obama administration refused to call what happened a coup in order to wiggle out of a legal requirement that would have prohibited military assistance.
When the president was finally forced to make a statement opposing the latest seizure of violence, in which security forces have killed more Egyptians than in the 2011 revolution against Mubarak, he again refused to halt the $1.5 billion U.S. aid, instead announcing the joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises would be temporarily discontinued – an empty gesture if there ever was one.
Why is the American government so supportive of the military regime? Because geopolitical interests always trump the marvelous platitudes about democracy and freedom that our politicians prattle on about.
“We need them for the Suez Canal, we need them for the peace treaty with Israel, we need them for the overflights, and we need them for the continued fight against violent extremists who are as much of a threat to Egypt’s transition to democracy as they are to American interests,” Gen. James N. Mattis, former head of Central Command, told the New York Times.
“Violent extremists,” in Washington’s formulation, always refers to scary Islamic terrorists, never the military regimes we support, even when they authorize the use of live ammunition against unarmed protesters, as the Egyptian military has done in the past few days.
A June 2010 Congressional Research Service report explained that aid to Middle East dictatorships serves for “the protection of vital petroleum supplies.” Politically, maintaining an obedient Egyptian military regime aims to “keep the Americans in, the Chinese and Russians out, the Iranians down, and the Israelis safe,” writes Esam Al-Amin, an expert on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.
And of course, there is a domestic element to U.S. aid to Egypt: the New York Times reported last year that “a delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers,” like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, constituents U.S politicians aren’t about to throw under the bus over a silly thing like democracy.
So to some extent, Washington is at the mercy of the Egyptian military establishment. But heavy-handed support for a cooperative military regime in Egypt has its costs — for Egyptians dying in the streets, of course, but also for the U.S.
Back in 2012 when John Kerry was a senator, he and his staff wrote a report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which explained that U.S. military presence and support for brutal dictatorships in the Middle East has generated widespread hatred and blowback.
According to the report, the challenge is to maintain dominance over the region, while avoiding the messy “backlash” and embarrassing support for “human rights abuses.”
The report recommended that the U.S. “carefully shape” its policies “so as not to create a popular backlash, while retaining the capability to protect the free flow of critical natural resources and to provide a counterbalance to Iran.”
Unfortunately for Washington, they have not been able to avoid that “popular backlash” in a time of Arab Spring uprisings and increasing political awareness throughout the region.
Things were much easier when the Egyptian population was subdued and passive in the face of the cruel U.S.-backed Mubarak regime. And Washington is now aching for a return of those times.
That’s why U.S. aid to the Egyptian military has continued unabated since the overthrow of Mubarak, even as the military leadership worked to undermine, and ultimately depose, the first democratically elected Egyptian president in the modern era. And that’s why the Obama administration did not condemn the military’s decision last week to throw out elected representatives and appoint military generals, many with close ties to the former Mubarak regime.
As Americans listen to the Obama administration’s ill-concealed nostalgia for Hosni Mubarak, they should disregard the vapid calls for democracy and understand what Washington really wants to come out of this mess.
Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, put it succinctly enough to the New York Times: the hope is that “the Egyptian military will take steps to clothe the military’s behind-the-scene rule with suitable civilian trappings, making it possible for the U.S. and others to deal with it.”
Military dictatorship with the mere pretense of democracy. That’s the American way.