News / Middle East

Column: Obama Skirts Egypt in State of the Union Address

FILE - Egyptians wave national flags as they greet an army helicopter flying over Tahrir Square.FILE - Egyptians wave national flags as they greet an army helicopter flying over Tahrir Square.
x
FILE - Egyptians wave national flags as they greet an army helicopter flying over Tahrir Square.
FILE - Egyptians wave national flags as they greet an army helicopter flying over Tahrir Square.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama devoted most of a limited section on foreign policy to the Middle East but uttered not one word about that region’s most populous and influential nation: Egypt.
 
Three years after Obama pressured President Hosni Mubarak to step down in the face of widespread protests and praised the stirrings of democracy in Tahrir Square, the U.S. appears at a loss about what it can do to temper a resurgent military dictatorship in this long-time ally.
 
Just a day before Obama spoke, Egypt’s top generals blessed the incipient presidential candidacy of Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who elevated himself from mere general to field marshal. Meanwhile, former President Mohamed Morsi, freely elected in 2012 and toppled in a “coupvolution” last summer, appeared in a sound-proof cage in court during of one of the myriad judicial proceedings against him.
 
The Obama administration has suspended delivery of F-16s and Apache helicopters to Egypt, but continued other military aid to help the Cairo government fend off al-Qaida-linked militants in the Sinai. The U.S. has also criticized Egypt for outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and arresting scores of secular opponents including many of the young activists responsible for the initial 2011 revolution.
 
Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt now looking after U.S. policy toward the entire Middle East, said in her first interview since assuming the post,  “It’s certainly no secret that we’re concerned about freedom of the press, freedom of association, all the fundamentals that are being thrown into question right now in Egypt, not to mention the huge economic issues.”
 
Patterson also expressed concern about upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, which are likely to offer limited choices. She said that future U.S. aid – some of which requires the Obama administration to certify that Egypt is on a democratic path -- could depend “on the nature of the elections and the environment in which they are held.”
 
However, bolstered by billions more in assistance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that supported Mubarak and opposed Morsi, Egypt’s current rulers seem impervious to U.S. pressure. In the Egyptian press, America is a scapegoat for Egypt’s dysfunction, not the benefactor and key ally of more than three decades.
 
Patterson, while she was U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 until last year, was often accused in the Egyptian media of being soft on the Muslim Brotherhood – a charge that the government-controlled press continues to make about the Obama administration. A journalist and former parliamentarian, Mustafa Bakri, went so far last week as to exhort Egyptians to kill Americans. Bakri later retracted the remark but the implications were ominous.
 
“There has been a rash of hugely anti-American stuff in the press,” Patterson said in the interview with this author for the Al-Monitor website. This ebbs and flows… [But] it’s a really quite dangerous game because you fan up public opinion and then you’re hostage to public opinion.”
 
It is hard to gauge just how popular al-Sissi really is. Much of the support for him appears to emanate from Egyptian weariness with their roller coaster politics, the weakness of liberal forces, the deteriorating economy and growing insecurity. Car bombs are going off now with frightening regularity in Cairo, the jails are full of Muslim Brothers and secular critics of the government, and tourism and investment remain depressed.
 
Shibley Telhami, author of a new book on Arab public opinion, “The World through Arab Eyes,” says al-Sissi’s popularity is likely to be ephemeral.
 
“If al-Sissi gets elected, he’ll have a honeymoon and in six months, he’ll be judged,” Telhami said. “Did he improve the economy, increase jobs?”
 
According to Telhami, the region has changed too much for al-Sissi to be transformed into Egypt’s next president for life.  The explosion of satellite television and social media means that even Egypt’s current crackdown on dissent cannot muffle all opposition voices indefinitely.
 
“We’ve seen public empowerment on a scale we’ve never witnessed before,” Telhamy says of the Arab awakening that began in Tunisia in late 2010. “It’s not going to go backward, it’s going to go forward. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
 
With limited means to influence Egypt’s next political steps, Patterson said one focus of her tenure would be to try to deal with the root causes of instability in the region through promoting free trade and economic development zones.
 
“We’re going to … focus more on economic issues because the genesis of many of these problems is economic,” she said. “It’s essentially demographics plus unemployment plus extremely poor education.”

Patterson noted that U.S.-backed Qualifying Industrial Zones in Egypt had created 300,000  jobs and generated $1 billion in exports and said she hoped the program could be expanded.
 
She also said that breakthroughs on historically intractable issues such as the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could yield big benefits and make lesser conflicts easier to resolve.

If you can move “these big issues off the plate … you have a much better situation throughout the region,” she said.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid