Disheartened in Washington

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Last month, I had my first opportunity as an Egyptian blogger to come face to face with US policymakers and officials in Washington DC. My meetings, arranged by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, opened my eyes to certain realities and changed several of the preconceived perceptions I brought with me from Cairo to the center of US political power.

I went to Washington with the message that the US administration should use its political clout in Egypt to push for democratic reform, just as it is calling for economic reform. The US government takes great interest in the country’s crumbling economy yet somehow fails to understand, or rather ignores the link, between political and economic reform. If the Muslim Brotherhood does not change its behavior and continues focusing solely on consolidating power, the political situation will remain tense hindering any prospects for economic recovery.

After one week of meetings and discussions with US officials, as well as with analysts, journalists and academics, I considered my visit to be successful on the personal level, yet quite a disappointment on the political level.

So what did I discover in Washington?

Hesitancy to criticize the Brotherhood

Washington is hesitant to criticize the Brotherhood, especially on issues related to democratic reform. Concerned with keeping Egypt as stable as possible, it appears that the US government shies away from blatantly criticizing the Brotherhood lest it undermine what it perceives to be the only political organization that can govern Egypt. This is a false assumption because President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration last November exacerbated an already unstable situation in the country. The Brotherhood’s unyielding stance together with its attempts to monopolize power are contributing to political polarization and slowing economic reform.

Washington repeating the same mistakes of the past

Second, after the 2011 revolution, optimists in Egypt thought Washington would abandon its policy, which focuses solely on short-term interests. They envisioned the US adopting a long-term policy that would prevent Washington from being taken by surprise by yet another unforeseen development in the region. In Washington, however, I sense this hasn’t happened; the game is still being played by the same rules. The US will still work to economically support whoever is in power and resort to ineffective public statements whenever diplomacy requires public criticism. When I advised an administration official that the US government should use its leverage to push for democratic reform, with the repressive draft  NGO law as an example, the official answered: “We’re doing that. Secretary Kerry discussed that with President Morsi when he was in Cairo.” However, the draft bill appears to be on the verge of ratification, indicating one of two things: either the US tone was too forgiving, or Egypt simply doesn’t care.

We are all alone

My trip to Washington convinced me that pro-democracy activists in Egypt should not expect much from the US; at least not from this administration. “We are all alone,” I told my trip coordinator as we left a meeting with an administration official. It seems that the Obama administration, haunted by the Bush years, is convinced that the world needs less of the US, hence its hands-off approach towards foreign policy. The Obama administration does not want to involve itself in democracy building in Egypt and would rather continue in the path of previous administrations, supporting whomever can provide the minimum level of stability. But this is yet another delusion. The Brotherhood’s obsession with absolute power caused the tense political atmosphere which is expected to continue as long as the country’s new leadership believes that winning at the ballot box allows it to ‘democratically’ create a repressive regime.

My visit proved that it is business as usual in Washington. US foreign policy in post-revolution Egypt has not undergone a radical change. Public statements are still made, advocating political reform but very little is done to push for these reforms and ensure they are implemented. It seems the US government needs another abrupt development in Egypt for it to be convinced, once and for all, that supporting a truly democratic Egypt is in their best interests. And by democratic, I mean a country that encompasses the full characteristics of democracy, not just the ballot box.

The Big Pharaoh is an Egyptian blogger since 2004. He writes on Egypt affairs and the Middle East in general. He is active on twitter @thebigpharaoh and on his blog

Photo: Valerie

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