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

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Video US Landmark Pushes Endangered Species

People gathered in streets, on rooftops in Manhattan to see image highlights that covered 33 floors of Empire State Building More

World’s Widest Suspension Bridge Being Built Over Bosphorus

Once built, Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge will span 2 kilometers with about 1.5 kilometers over water, and will be longest suspension bridge in world carrying rail system 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.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs