Despite the January 2011 popular uprising that ultimately led to the ouster of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, today US policy towards Egypt continues to be characterized by inconsistent efforts to promote democracy, while simultaneously supporting dictatorships in the region.
Nearly a year and a half before the initial uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I traveled to Egypt in the fall of 2009 to make a film about the fledgling democracy movement. The film, entitled, “We are Egypt”, was intended to document the efforts of the democracy movement and to explore how Egyptians perceived the longstanding US support for Mubarak’s military regime over the previous 30 years. At the time, neither I nor the subjects of the film had foreseen the massive outpouring of support for change that would unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011.
After Mubarak was forced to step down, the Egyptian military maintained its grip on power and ushered in what were ostensibly Egypt’s first democratic elections in 2012. This resulted in an electoral victory by the long repressed opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet after a year of very controversial and disappointing leadership, the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohammed Morsi faced massive civic protests of historic proportions, leading once again to the military stepping in to force Morsi to resign in July 2013.
Although the military claims it will arrange for new democratic elections, it is clear that democracy advocates still have an uphill battle ahead of them.
These recent developments continue to cause friction in US policy. Technically speaking, the Morsi government was democratically elected, and yet the military stepped in to overthrow it, albeit with popular support in the streets driving the change. This presents a problem for the US because US law states that in the event of a military overthrow of a democratic government, all US military aid should be suspended. Yet the US has not suspended its aid to Egypt, despite a token delivery delay of four F-16 fighter jets. The US continues to provide 1.5 billion dollars annually in assistance to the Egyptian military, which has flowed consistently for more than three decades as part of the 1979 US-brokered peace deal between Egypt and Israel.
Both the Egyptian military and US defense contractors have mutually benefitted from this government spending, which is meant to be used by the Egyptians to purchase US-made arms. However, as mentioned above, because Morsi’s government had been democratically elected, US policy appears stuck between a rock and a hard place as administration officials struggle to explain why they continue to provide military support in apparent contravention of US law.
Beyond the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, US military aid to Egypt also supports other US strategic goals in the region, such as maintaining security and the flow of goods through the Suez Canal that allows oil and other shipments between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, the US has to capitulate to democratic movements when they become too big to ignore. One of the main topics raised in the film focuses on the inconsistency between US efforts to support democracy while also supporting the military dictatorship. While “democracy promotion” efforts may play well in the US Congress and western media, the Egyptian people are far more discerning. It is hard for many to take seriously the claims of the US to support democracy in the face of its long support for the Mubarak dictatorship and its continued flows of aid to the military today.
An added challenge is that today the Egyptian population is strongly divided, with one faction calling for Morsi to be reinstated, and the other supporting the military intervention that overthrew him. Both sides claim to want democracy, while the US appears steadfast in its support for the military.
Those who wish to see Mosi back in power are criticizing the US for having supported the military overthrow. They point to hypocrisy not seen since Islamists were set to win democratic elections in Algeria in the early 1990s: if the “wrong” people are elected, then the US turns a blind eye to a military coup. However, many opponents of Morsi, who are happy he was removed from power, claim that in its first year the Morsi government had become as undemocratic and abusive as was the Mubarak regime, and that Egypt had merely switched dictators from a secular one to an Islamist one.
Is there a “right side of history” for the US to take at this point? Clearly the US is maintaining its support for the only real source of power in the country – the military. And it is now up to the military as to when, how and if the Egyptian people will be able to vote at the ballot box next. But one thing is clear: the longer US continues with its support for the military, the harder it will be to sell its claim that it supports democracy. As Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick document in their new book, “The Untold History of the United States,” there is a long and sordid historical record of US support for dictatorships, and support did not stop with the end of the Cold War in 1990s, but as US policy towards Egypt and other regimes in the region shows, continues to this day. If the movements of the Arab Spring suggest that people across the region are increasingly demanding more democratic and accountable government and technologically modern economies, then US policy may well be on the wrong side of history.
Basem Fathy, one of the leading democracy activists featured in the film, reflected on recent events in Egypt by cautioning Westerners to view the democratic transition from a long term perspective: “The path to democracy should not be expected to be quick or easy. It will be a process, with some steps forward and some backward. The important point is that the Egyptian people have begun this process, and are set to ultimately join the international community of democratic nations. While there may be disappointing setbacks and bumps in the road along the way, ultimately, there is no going back.”