Egypt continues to provide Washington with sobering lessons in the frailties of US foreign policy, a policy that remains rooted in an archaic world view that perceives America’s vital interests around the globe as surpassing in their importance even the popular will of other nations and peoples. In the pursuit of those interests America has lived by the maxim that the ends justify the means, whatever those means might be.
That is why US foreign policy has, over the years, been littered with ugly, unflattering episodes, not least the orchestration of violent regime change in countries where the incumbents have been perceived as standing in the way of American interests. Some of those come immediately to mind, like the ousting of Iran’s Mohammed Mossaddegh in 1952; the removal of Jacobo Arbenz from office in Guatemala in 1954 and the deposing of Chile’s newly elected President Salvador Allende in 1979. All were elected leaders and in each case the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was widely believed to have plotted their demise. In turn, each was replaced by regimes more accommodating to America’s interests; undemocratic and tyrannical, but accommodating to America’s interests; that is all that mattered to Washington. Never mind the disastrous domestic consequences (like repression, bloodshed, denial of basic human rights and in the case of Guatemala a more than four-decade civil war that has left grotesque scars on the Central American country to this day) that flowed from its ‘foreign policy pursuits.’
Egypt too has had to endure protracted disfigurement to help sustain America’s world-according-to-Washington. Until earlier this year Hosni Mubarak was Washington’s ‘man in Cairo.’ The price which Egyptians have had to pay for his tyranny has mattered little to America. His value reposed only in how well he served US interests.
Sometimes America has tweaked and tinkered with democracy in other countries, employing as its justification for so doing the protection of its interests. In the case of Mubarak’s Egypt America could contrive no semblance of democratic rule. Mubarak (and before him the assassinated Anwar El Sadat) was a thorough, complete and unpretentious dictator and America lived with him in much the same way that it has lived with other dictators, openly and without either shame or discomfort.
Now that Mubarak has been tossed into the dustbin of history America’s foreign policy, once again, lies exposed for its terminal weaknesses, thrown to the wolves. Washington’s response to the unfolding events in Egypt has been characterized by clumsiness and uncertainty. The American media’s post-Mubarak soundings about the dawn of democracy in Egypt do not come remotely close to tallying with the evidence on the ground. That evidence points to an incomplete, still unfolding process and it is the current interregnum of uncertainty that is giving Washington the jitters. It knows that the final chapter in Egypt’s revolution is yet to be written and that what finally emerges from the revolution could rip its Middle East foreign policy to shreds. It is the impotence of its current detachment from events in Egypt that worries Washington. Egypt, for a change, is marching to its own drumbeat and America has fallen behind, out of earshot and out of rhythm.
Such tenuous influence as America retains in Egypt is hinged to the Egyptian military which, having taken the reins of power from the embattled dictator on a promise of delivering democratic government, has now assumed a posture of hesitancy and prevarication. The Generals now appear to have placed themselves between the Egyptians and their revolution.
For the time being too the military appears to have forestalled a full-blown popular uprising that might well have shifted the tectonic plates of Middle Eastern politics. Mubarak’s regime held some vital keys to the retention of the uneasy peace that prevails in the Middle East including keeping the peace with Israel, keeping the Suez Canal open and suppressing its own domestic Islamist forces. With Mubarak gone the Egyptian military has become the keeper of those keys – at least for the time being.
America cannot rest easy though; a point could soon be reached where the issue of regime-change could set the civilians and the soldiers on a path of confrontation; and this time America will have to make a more critical choice.
Two rounds of elections have already been held preparatory to the creation of a 100-member Assembly to write Egypt’s new constitution; two Islamist political parties have been handed around two thirds of the popular vote. That will not please America. Its relations with the Islamic forces in the Middle East have been anything but cordial. Change beckons in Egypt and this time it is not Washington that is calling the shots.
The Egyptian military has already moved to limit the power of an elected parliament (which will doubtless comprise an Islamist majority) in the matter of the writing of a new constitution. It has appointed its own 30-member Council to oversee the process. The ruling Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces, the de facto government in Cairo, has, meanwhile, sworn in a new Cabinet headed by a 78 year-old former Prime Minister from the Mubarak era named Kamal Al-Ganzuri. The military are themselves not unaware of where an Islamic state might take Egypt.
More of the same? It would – for the moment at least – appear that way; though the emergence of organized Islamic structures like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Al Nour grouping as popular and legitimate political forces in Egypt now gives both Washington and the military in Cairo something new to think about. An Islamist government in Egypt would not sit well with America’s Middle East foreign policy though President Obama is reportedly pushing for early presidential elections in Egypt knowing only too well that the outcome is unlikely to cause Washington to dance with delight.
Mubarak might have been no more than a tinpot dictator but he kept America’s vital interests in the Middle East safe. Washington would have much preferred that he alone be the fall guy. Pliable dictators come a dime a dozen and America has grown used to ‘engineering’ the replacement of one despot who has outlived his usefulness with another perhaps more palatable one. America would have favoured leadership change rather than regime change in Egypt. That would have meant that its Middle East foreign policy tapestry would have remained largely intact. That is no longer an option. It must now depend entirely on the Egyptian military currently engaged in the kind of tweaking and tinkering with democracy in a bid to place restraints on the will of the Egyptian people.
What events in Egypt have done is to set before Washington the fault lines in its foreign policy structure, not least of which has been America’s failure to recognize the enormous risks that repose in its persistence with a world view that subsumes the choices of other nations beneath what it perceives as its vital interests abroad. Every so often – and Egypt appears to be just such an instance – Washington’s world-according-to-America foreign policy will be exposed for what it so often is, a cynical articulation of its long-held view that might is right and that nothing else really matters; and as current events in Egypt are proving, there are nations that have grown tired of having their destinies shaped to fit the jigsaw of the American world view. They are demanding that America begin to see the rest of the world through different lenses.