Strengthening America in Egypt

American Egyptian Relations
Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, September 11, 2012. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Many Egyptians believe the United States is out to get them. Yet at the same time, the United States is the primary supplier of the Egyptian military, and ties between the two armed forces are strong.

Samuel Tadros wrote an engaging history of post-Arab Spring Egypt for the Hoover Institute, entitled “The Follies of Democracy Promotion.”

In it he brings to task the sentiment of past administrations — Bush and Obama included — who sought to pressure Egypt to open up democratically.

Some critics might say it is the underlying relation with the military and the failure to push harder for democracy that makes the United States a popular target. Tadros is cynical.

Regardless, in his conclusion he hits at a very important but often overlooked feature of the bilateral relationship:

Beyond any specific policy disagreements between the two countries throughout the years, the weakness of the alliance stems from the failure of Washington to build a constituency for the United States in Egypt.

As anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories overtook the country, no one in Egypt was willing to stand for the United States, defending the importance of the alliance.

Engagement with Egyptian society should not be limited to Cairo or to the business community, but the United States should make an effort to reach wider spectrums of Egyptian society.

And he offers several rather practical steps:

The US embassy should offer a correction to every anti-American story appearing in the Egyptian media, and those who actively spread such stories and refuse to correct them should pay a price.

A journalist consistently spreading conspiracy theories about the United States should not get invited to the US embassy Fourth of July party and he should not receive a visa to go shopping in America.

Alhurra, the US-based satellite TV channel, should be revitalized to provide fact-based news for Egypt and the region as a whole.

Above all, President el-Sisi should give a major speech making the case for the US-Egyptian alliance, detailing what America has done to help Egypt and refuting anti-American conspiracy theories. If he is committed to the alliance and wants US economic and military aid, he should be required to make the case for America to his people.

America has been content to look the other way as its reputation is trashed, assured vital interests will be [and have been] protected. And Egypt is free to pursue its favored foreign policy, independent of the United States, if it chooses.

‘Hearts and minds’ only go so far in a climate of disinformation. And America must step up to the plate and deserve the good reputation it desires.

But Tadros’ suggestions are sensible. It is strange they have not been widely discussed before.


Principled Foreign Policy

… defining it, of course, is difficult.

Most Arabs I have met have been quick to distinguish between the American people and the American government. That is, while much criticism exists toward American foreign policy, this does not prevent most Arab people from having positive relationships with the American individuals they meet. We, of course, can be the beneficiaries, even in the times we seek to make understandable the policies in question.

Arabs will ask, however, why do the American people allow US foreign policy to go unchecked? There is not a lot of anger behind this question, since they live under governments which take little regard for the will of the people. America, though, is different, and most wish they enjoyed the freedom Americans have to influence national political choices. The solution they propose is that the average American must not know, or be concerned about, what goes on outside US borders, beyond the impact it might have on the American economy.

Fair enough; it may or may not be true. I, however, counter with the idea that while the average American may or may not know the details of the impact of US foreign policy in the nations affected, most are concerned to believe that the US is a force for good in this world. That is, we care about democracy, human rights, and the economic improvement of impoverished areas. As long as US policy can be explained in this light, it can enjoy popular support.

There is now statistical evidence to support my assertion.

The University of Maryland administered a poll surveying American attitudes toward the recent uprisings in the Arab world. 65% believed that increasing democratization in the region would be mostly positive for the United States, and 76% believed it would be so in the long run. Perhaps most telling is the fact that 57% ‘would want to see a country become more democratic, even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies.’

It is worthy to note that these opinions focus on the principle – democracy – rather than on the events themselves. Only 51% believed the recent uprisings were likely to lead to increased democracy. Americans can be appreciated for their realism; the outcome in the Arab world is far from clear. Yet the results of this poll demonstrate that we are, at heart, a people that care for the good of the world, even if interpreted through the lens of our own values. Policy makers must determine first and foremost the national interest, but if they fail to convince the people their decision is also beneficial for the foreign nation in question, they are unlikely to win popular support. As the poll suggests, we desire the prioritization of our principles over our interest. Undoubtedly there were many reasons to enter World War I, but the rallying cry was ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’ This sentiment is still pervasive today.

Our reality may not always match our rhetoric, but the fact of our believed benevolence should be noted, both in Washington, and on the Arab street.