If the US President believed he could slap Egypt in the face and see his nation emerge unscathed, he was wrong; a country undergoing a major social and economic crisis is not about to turn the other cheek. If he thought he could bring Cairo to its knees by cutting millions of dollars in aid, cancelling bilateral military exercises and withholding delivery of F-16s and spare parts for Apache helicopters, he’s delusional. Every action has a reaction and, in this case, President Obama has badly miscalculated by attempting to impose his will on a people who’ve long resented America’s meddling in their affairs and will no longer succumb to US bullying tactics.
Ultimately, Obama ill-conceived stance has pleased no one with the possible exception of Sen. John McCain, his sidekick Sen. Lindsey Graham and their arrogant flag-waving ilk, but I predict the smile will shortly be wiped from McCain’s smug face.
Egypt’s on-line English-language daily Egypt Independent quoted unnamed sources revealing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to put “all Russian military facilities at the Egyptian military’s disposal” and to conduct joint military exercises with the Egyptian army”. In the meantime, Russia has signed-up to providing Egypt with wheat for the coming three-to-five years.
Moreover, Egypt’s local TV channels are buzzing with the news that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to visit Cairo shortly. The Israeli daily Makor Rishon says President Putin will follow in November as part of a drive to repair ties forged by Abdel Nasser but shattered by Anwar El-Sadat in 1973.
Egyptians feel abandoned by the powers that be in Washington, as Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi succinctly expressed during a Washington Post interview earlier this year. The message to the Obama administration from a growing number of Egyptian politicians and media analysts is ‘Keep your aid, we don’t want it’. A State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sweetened the pill saying the aid would be restored if there were “credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically-elected civilian government through free and fair elections,” the operative word being ‘inclusive’. Egypt’s democratic road map is moving ahead as planned with a new constitution shortly to be put to referendum that will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections, but it takes two hands to clap.
Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of Egyptians are convinced Obama is hand-in-glove with the Muslim Brotherhood and is now doing his utmost to insinuate the Brothers into the political process going forward regardless of the fact their leadership refuses to recognize the new order and still demand Mursi’s reinstatement as president. Based on reports in the local media, most are convinced that the White House secretly funded the MB’s pre-election campaigning on the basis of shady deals, detrimental to Egypt’s national interests. Promoting Islamism to undermine nationalistic sentiments and elicit disunity has been a staple of US ‘divide and rule’ foreign policy since the 1950s.
The fact that Obama resisted condemning Mursi’s undemocratic power grab while in office and is currently slamming the military for its crackdown on violence and terrorism, while leaving the Brotherhood perpetrators and their terrorist buddies in Sinai off the hook, is fuel for conspiracy theorists. Heightening their suspicions was an article published in the Bahraini paper The Gulf Daily News, quoting a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton as saying the US has been plotting to destabilize Egypt over the past two years. Official US denials have fallen on deaf ears in Egypt.
Egypt’s government was initially taken aback by recent Obama’s punitive measures that came with a verbal slap on the wrist to the effect America’s “values” do not permit “business as usual”. Secretary of State John Kerry instantly played ‘good cop’ announcing America’s “commitment to the success of this government” while stressing the measures should not be construed as “a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the government.”
Initially, the move was met with uncharacteristic silence from Cairo, doubtless because the Cabinet needed time to formulate a plan of action. Then on Oct. 16, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy issued a stark warning. “We are now in a delicate state reflecting the turbulence in the (US-Egyptian) relationship and anyone who says otherwise is not speaking honestly.” When later asked by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour whether Egypt intends purchasing weapons from Russia, he said with Egypt’s national security uppermost, his country would find other sources of aid if its needs were not met (by the US). A prolonged weakening of US-Egyptian ties would “reflect negatively on the entire region, including American interests,” he told Al Ahram, which could be translated to mean if Egypt slips away from the US umbrella, then so will the neighborhood.
America is now waking up to the implications. There is an increasing awareness in Congress that the administration’s stance does in no way serve US interests in the region. Rep. Eliot Engel, a ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he’s “frustrated” with Obama’s lack of consultation with Congress on Egypt. “During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them,” he said.
Israel, which forcefully lobbied the White House to back the transition, feels snubbed and fears the impact a cooling of ties between Egypt and the US might have on the Camp David peace treaty, intelligence sharing and mutual efforts to cleanse Sinai from terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE that are invested in Egypt’s success are unimpressed to say the least.
I don’t claim to have a crystal ball, but here’s a prediction. On the streets of Egypt, President Putin will receive a hero’s greeting. Chocolate-makers will imprint his image on their wares; vendors will do a roaring trade in Russian flags. Egypt’s false allies will get a wake-up call. And unless Obama does a swift u-turn, he’ll be chewing on his missteps for years to come.
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