ATbar No Friends Left to Lose: Reassessing the United States’ Strategy in Egypt

No Friends Left to Lose: Reassessing the United States’ Strategy in Egypt

02/08/2013 | by Marks, Joel  

On January 25, 2011, the Egyptian people began protests that culminated in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak only eighteen days later. Though international onlookers hoped for a quick transition to functioning democracy, Egypt has struggled to stabilize and adapt in this important new chapter of the nation’s history. With Mohamed Morsi’s recent removal from power, the Jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula has reached new levels of violence and there is no end in sight to the social unrest and political stalemate between the Islamists and Seculars. Furthermore, acting President Adly Mansour announced on August 10, 2013 that international efforts at reconciliation, headed by the US and EU, had failed.2 

Since the revolution began, the Obama administration’s Egypt policy has been marked by a reluctance to interfere with the status quo: his hesitation to support the peaceful protests in Tahrir Square that called for Mubarak to cede power; his unwillingness to convincingly condemn the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for its brutal crackdowns on dissent during both of its interim rules; his disinclination to denounce then-President Mohamed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party for their illiberal policies and exclusion; and his continuation of military assistance even after the July 2013 coup of a democratically elected leader. This ‘light footprint’ strategy in the Middle East was intended to assuage America’s reputation for sovereignty-encroaching intervention, thus improving its image in the Arab world. The strategy has failed. By overcompensating for his predecessor’s overactive and unpopular policies, President Obama has further alienated the Arab world with his inaction. 

Opinion polls among Egyptians show that confidence in Obama, perception of America’s consideration of Egyptian interests, and opinion of the United States has decreased every year since the revolutions in 2011.3 In 2013, Egyptian opinion of the United States (16% favorable) is roughly half of what it was in 2006 (30% favorable), when Washington was still propping up Mubarak, and the hugely unpopular Iraq war was at its climax. As stated in his May 19, 2011 speech in the wake of the Arab revolutions, “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.”4 However, reform was not promoted during Morsi’s presidency and Egypt is now more divided than ever, and the recent transition away from democracy has been tacitly supported by the United States through continued military financing. 

Now is an appropriate moment to reassess the conflict and America’s strategy in Egypt. This article offers that assessment through a tested United States Government (USG) Framework. The Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF) is designed for policymakers and practitioners as a tool to assess the stability of, or conflict in, a given country. As an interagency framework, the ICAF calls for broad whole-of-government cooperation, an ideal that has been recognized as necessary to achieving American interests by the 2010 National Security Strategy,5 as well as the US Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. In fact, the COIN Manual explicitly recommends the ICAF as an integral tool for ‘assessing the situation’- the critical first step preceding any policy formulation.6 By using the USG framework to examine the conflict in Egypt it is possible to bridge the gap between practitioners and academics which has been recognized as a key cause of the current poor understanding of external democracy promotion.7  

The diagnosis makes clear that the US should a) immediately begin incremental cuts to the $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing to Egypt for the conflict-driving tactics being used by Egyptian security forces, b) concentrate efforts at the local level by supporting the accommodating voices in society who feel trapped between two opposing instigators, and c) form broader coalitions with fellow influential international actors to push for institutional reform at the national level now, during the interim rule of Adly Mansour.

The first section of this paper will unpack the two analytical tasks of the framework, diagnosis and response, in detail. The second section will apply the framework to diagnose the Egyptian conflict in the wake of the military coup that unseated Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013. The diagnosis consists of first establishing the context within which the conflict has arisen, then identifying the major grievances and resiliencies of the three identity groups: The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and the Seculars. Key mobilizers will then be recognized as being either drivers of conflict or mitigating factors that seek to subdue tensions. Finally, the conflict is placed on a trajectory based on societal trends, and potential ‘triggers’ are identified that could suddenly and drastically alter the situation. 

The third section will apply the response process of the ICAF to Egypt by analyzing what US policy interests and considerations should be based on pragmatic prioritization, and offer realistic strategies for the USG to pursue based on their technical merits. The conclusion will summarize what has been shown and envision a positive way forward for US-Egypt relations.

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