Ordinary Egyptians Have Little to Show for U.S. Military Aid to Egypt

Obama MubarakIt was fairly clear that the military would act after Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s ineptly provocative speeches. The motives for forcing him out were almost certainly multi-faceted – and indeed confused. Certainly the gnomic communiques from the Supreme Army Council could have been drafted by the Sphinx for their lack of content.

On the side of pragmatic self-interest, the senior commanders of the military have had a good deal out of the regime, with profits and jobs in all the military-related and controlled industries, not to mention the prestige and other perquisites of power. The senior commanders seem to have calculated that their only chance of keeping their position and privileges was to go with the flow and tell Mubarak to leave.

If they had ordered the army against the protestors they faced a real problem. Would the conscripts and junior officers follow orders and move against their fellow citizens? Mubarak’s announcement of his departure by September and his other concessions profoundly reduced the chances of the military personnel risking their lives, not to mention their honor, for a self-admitted lost cause.

So now the issue is one for delicate compromises. The opposition leaders and the military have to negotiate the proportions of power sharing. The high command will be trying to maintain its power, but their position is weakened: if they are too greedy, then they have to think of the tens of millions who took to the streets and are now confirmed in their potential power. In addition, much of the military does indeed share the sentiments of the protestors, and so their commanders are playing with a weak hand.

The transition will be difficult. Washington has seen it in terms of a move from one amenable strong leader to another more acceptable but equally amenable one. The EU and US preference for Omar Suleiman, a secret policeman in cahoots with what most Egyptians regard as inimical powers, demonstrates how out of touch they are. They have looked at opposition leaders such as Mohammed El-Baradei as potential strongmen and found them wanting.

But that is precisely their attraction. El-Baradei, or retiring Arab League ambassador Amr ElMousa, should be considered as conveners, whose absence from domestic politics and wrangling could make them impartial and consensual spokesmen. El-Baradei showed his integrity under pressure from the UN and others and gained stature, which is perhaps why some of the chattering classes in Washington, who have never forgiven him for that, have been so eager to suggest his unpopularity.

The last thing Egypt wants is a presidential system concentrating power in one person. To replace decades of autocracy will take a parliamentary consensual system that reflects the views of the disparate masses and interests who rallied to overthrow the President — and as they showed the last two days — the regime.

Anyone who knows Egyptians knows their deep interest in politics and international affairs and the evidence of the last weeks certainly indicates they will not revert to becoming passive subjects again.

What are the international repercussions? Washington and the West will now have to take account of the wishes of the Egyptian people rather than rely upon a bribed autocracy. That certainly should reduce the perennial tendency to see the region through Israeli eyes.

It is unlikely that anyone wants to rip up the peace treaty with Israel. There will be no military assault on Israel. But a government in Cairo looking over its shoulder at a newly enfranchised and staunchly patriotic people is unlikely to enforce the blockade against Gaza, or to help Western efforts to frustrate Hamas/Fateh reconciliation. That degree of security cooperation is almost certainly over and the unpopular sales of Egyptian natural gas to Israel will likely be called into question.

But even the US-Egyptian alliance will need much more work and attention than sending a large annual check to the army. Ordinary Egyptians have seen little practical benefit from alleged American friendship, which has taken the form of supporting their oppressors and to some extent impinging on their patriotism by enforcing cooperation with Israel.

In a situation of diminished American power, Washington’s best bet is to sit on the sidelines and applaud, unless it makes it clear that the money to the military stops immediately if it does not reflect the legitimacy established by the street.

One significant and practical gesture would be cooperation in tracking down and returning to the new government the money that Mubarak and his colleagues have looted over the decades.

For the future, Obama needs some more public diplomacy. In the long term, the military aid has to be diverted to civilian uses, and even expanded. But an Obama who does not stand up to Netanyahu over settlements is unlikely to have much standing in front of the Arab street — as will be reinforced in the other autocratic dominoes that might topple.

Any suggestion that the US will only welcome a democratically elected regime if it hews to American preconceptions about Israel, or that its welcome will be tempered if Islamic parties are represented in the new government, is guaranteed to be counterproductive.