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

Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

US intel officials describe Ramadi's fall as concerning, but say it isn't emblematic of larger effort to degrade IS capabilities More

Nigeria Fuel Shortage Shows Fragility of Africa’s Oil Giant

Although it is the largest oil producer in Africa, country has nearly ran out of fuel it needs to power its generators, cars and airplanes over the past week More

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer 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.
3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Cari
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
May 27, 2015 9:31 PM
Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs