Egypt’s Presidential Elections: Washington and the Western Camp [Part IV]

Since June 30, the United States has faced an escalating crisis in its strategic relationship with Egypt. A lack of trust in key parties involved in the country’s transition has caused a great deal of confusion and hesitancy in Washington towards Egypt and its upcoming presidential elections, which are less than two months away.

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A Crisis of Trust

The Egyptian military establishment, along with the rest of its security services, has started to look at the United States with a high degree of suspicion. It sees Washington as the primary driver for many forces of chaos in Egypt, whether directly or indirectly.

I was hesitant at first, but now am confident that the Muslim Brotherhood, or at least its more influential leaders, can no longer trust Washington. At a certain point, Brotherhood leaders believed that they could rely on a strong US reaction to influence change in Egypt. This trust began to fade little by little, particularly after the dispersals of the pro-Mohamed Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins on August 14. A Muslim Brotherhood statement last October criticized Western governments, among them the United States, for what it described as a hypocritical “support of the murderous military coup” in Egypt. Now not only has the Brotherhood lost this trust entirely, but they have begun to believe that the United States has been plotting against them.

This crisis of trust has even extended to include Riyadh, one of the biggest allies of the current (and upcoming) regime in Egypt. Saudi Arabia also seems to be on the threshold of a turning point in its relationship with Washington, backed by the entire Gulf camp, with the exception of Qatar and Oman.

The Presidential Elections

While most predicted that defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would run for president, there were those who remained doubtful. This belief was likely bolstered by the fortification of his position in the constitution, which gave the military an eight-year veto over the appointment of the minister of defense. The constitution made it safer for Sisi to remain minister rather than risk running for president.

The sudden emptying of the playing field for Sisi has been cause for confusion. While the withdrawal of leftist candidate Khaled Ali and liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh were anticipated due to their poor chances, Lieutenant General Sami Anan’s decision to withdraw from the race came as a surprise.

Anan’s last-minute decision not to run remains a mystery. Everyone was waiting for the press conference in which Anan would officially announce his candidacy. So it was to everyone’s surprise, including the camp that welcomed Anan as president and Sisi as minister of defense, when he announced he would not be running after all, and for no apparent reason. The explanation he offered at the time – that he does not want to cause a rift within the military establishment – is unconvincing. The tensions between Anan and the army had grown to the point where there was a smear campaign already in full force, after he insisted on tweeting independently about his memoires of the January revolution and later announced unofficially that he intended to run for president.

Anan was a reasonable solution for many. In the eyes of the Brotherhood, he could have been the acceptable solution because, at leastas far as they were concerned, he had theoretically not been involved in the July 3 Movement or the subsequent clearing of the Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins. He came closest to working in their interest without flying in the face of their organization or its principles.

It is also possible that Washington and its European allies may have felt a preference towards Anan’s candidacy because of his close relationship with the Pentagon during much of Mubarak’s tenure. This would have allowed them the rare chance to deal with someone they understood and who could, with a touch of exaggeration, be called pro-American. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat in February, Anan described the US-Egypt relationship as a mutually beneficial one, saying that “our common interests overrun temporary tensions.”

Understanding Sisi

Sisi, however, remains a mystery to the United States. The period during which he studied in America yields a single research paper, providing a rare glimpse into the man’s personality. The subject of the paper, however, could give the United States more cause for concern than confidence.

While studying at the United States Army War College in 2006, Sisi wrote a seventeen page research paper entitled “Democracy in the Middle East.” It showed an important side of his philosophy towards government and his convictions about democracy in general.  

In his paper, Sisi showed a general inclination or empathy towards the conservative/Islamic doctrine, without fully accepting it or seeking to implement its principles. However it doesn’t necessarily mean that his views represent any specific political Islamic group .He was also openly critical of the spread of Western-style democracy in the Middle East on the basis that the overwhelming majority of people in the region strongly reject any democratic values that conflict with the traditions of Islam. Not only did he argue that it was necessary for religion to play a role in the region’s governments, but he went so far as to say that it was imperative to build a democracy upon Islamic beliefs, albeit without excluding any of the non-Muslim cultures of these multi-cultural societies.

For eight months, Western diplomats, hand in hand with anxious Western research centers, have likely tried to find anything to help reveal the hidden side of Sisi’s personality. They have studied every speech Sisi has given, even those he improvised, from June 30 until the present, attempting to paint a more detailed picture of his personality. 

Perhaps US concern comes principally from the fact that they do not know the key points in Sisi’s  personality that would allow them, to some extent, to predict the coming relationship between Washington and Cairo during his probable tenure.

As Washington likely sees it, Sisi was first successful at winning the trust of the Islamists, persuading former president Mohamed Morsi to overlook at least 100 theoretically more qualified candidates to appoint him as minister of defense. Then, in a figure even harder to fathom, he deposed Morsi after less than one year as minister of defense. Sisi, now a popular hero whose picture is championed by Egyptians from all different social classes, decided to enter the race for the presidency, not content to play the role of Egypt’s most powerful man behind the curtain. This whole dramatic succession would alone have given Washington cause enough for concern about a man of the likes of Sisi.  

How Egypt’s overall foreign policy might look under Sisi’s tenure has not yet become clear, and he has made no direct or indirect mention about his true position towards Washington as of yet. Even his speech announcing his candidacy made no indications, unless we take his firm refusal of any kind of international intervention in Egyptian affairs – along with his invitation to unconditional cooperation for common interests – as an implicit message to Washington and its allies.

Nader Bakkar is a co-founder of Egypt’s al-Nour Party and serves as a member of the party’s presidential and foreign affairs committees, as well as the chairman’s assistant for media affairs.

Image: Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with then Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt in November, 2013 [State Department photo]