A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Clinton Protests and the New US-Egyptian Relationship

Morsi with Clinton; with Anti-US Sign
During Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Egypt over the weekend, there were some curious elements: demonstrations against her both outside the US Embassy and outside her hotel, protesting US interference in Egyptian domestic affairs and US manipulation of Egyptian politics. And, to add to the unusual responses, key Christian representatives, including representatives of the Coptic Church, the Maspero Youth movement, and the Evangelical Church, all declined invitations to meet with her. These protests are spurred by an impression that the United States has supported the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi. Adding to the effect was the presence of Muslim Brotherhood members helping protect the US Embassy,while a photo circulated on the Internet showing Morsi with Clinton and an earlier photo showing Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders with a sign demanding the US and Israeli Ambassadors be kicked out. And then today there are reports that Field Marshal Tantawi assured Clinton that the military will not allow "one group," presumably meaning the Brotherhood, to take over Egypt, though many Egyptians seem to think that that has been the goal of US policy.

What is going on here? Well, there is a genuine feeling in Egypt that the US, with its huge aid package and its influence, is calling the shots behind the scenes. And clearly, the Muslim Btotherhood has been in ascendancy lately, with a plurality in the now disbanded Parliament and Morsi in the Presidential :Palace. Therefore, that must be what the US wanted.

Now, while I realize there are critics on the political right in this country who also blame US policy (or just "Obama") for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, it certainly isn't a perception shared in the general policy community. A support for democratization does not equal support for the Brotherhood, and there is a generally positive response to the success of secular liberals over Islamists in the Libyan elections.

It's easy to dismiss this as just more conspiracy theorizing; it is that, but it's also an indication of the degree to which the US is perceived as the manipulator behind the scenes in Egypt, and there are many who perceive developments they do not like or understand as the product of a hidden hand. When Egyptians blame "mysterious forces" and "foreign elements" for political developments or just about anything else, they usually mean the US and Israel, which are assumed to act in concert when it comes to Egypt. If you or I protest that the US and Israel are not purusing the same policies towards Arab change, or object that we are not in fact promoting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, it merely confirms that we, too, are part of the plot. With popular opinion now actually playing a role in choosing the leadership through elections, this long-present but previously neutralized factor will be a challenge (and hardly the only one) for the US in dealing with the new Egypt.

The alienation of the Christian community is, however, unfortunate, since Copts have often looked to the Coptic diaspora abroad as their strategic reserve in defending their rights at home. Morsi's pledge to name a Coptic Vice President is encouraging, but only slightly offsets their worries about the overall growth of Islamist influence in society. That they, too, think the US favors the Brotherhood is most unfortunate.

But the whole incident is a reminder that however much Egypt remains unchanged (SCAF), there have been real and genuine changes, and they will make US-Egyptian relations a much more complex affair than it has been for the past three decades.

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