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Has The US Forgotten Egypt?

Oct 7, 2013



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. We're going to spend some time talking now about Egypt, where more than 50 people were killed over the weekend in clashes between the military and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. In a moment, we'll speak to an Egyptian-American who has written poetry inspired by the unrest there.

But first, we'll take a closer look at what the Obama administration is and is not doing in response to the situation in Egypt. Both domestic and international crises, like Syria, have pushed the nation of Egypt out of the headlines and seemingly off the top of the White House agenda. But our next guest says that's a problem and it could actually lead to more violence in Egypt and less stability in the region as a whole. Shadi Hamid is the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and recently co-wrote "Remember Cairo?" - it was a piece for Foreign Policy. And he joins us now. Shadi, welcome back.

SHADI HAMID: Hi, thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: You opened your piece for Foreign Policy with a list of some of the current international priorities for the Obama administration - that was a restart of relations with Iran, trying to resolve the Syrian crisis as well. Where on this list of priorities, do you think, does Egypt now rank for the Obama administration?

HAMID: I think, unfortunately, Egypt has fallen off the political radar somewhat. In August, after the massacre of August 14, where hundreds were killed in Egypt, it was a top priority for a short period of time and there was a real discussion in Washington about what to do about Egypt, suspending military aid and so on. But then the Syria crisis became the top priority and there was a focus on military strikes and that pushed Egypt off a little bit.

And I think there's also - I just came back from Washington - and there's also a real crisis of confidence, I feel, where policymakers are doubting their ability to have a constructive influence on what's going on in Egypt or the broader Middle East. And there's a general kind of Middle East fatigue right now.

HEADLEE: In your piece, you also argue - and I found this interesting - that, in fact, the military regime which has control of Egypt right now could possibly be worse for Egypt, more repressive, than Egypt under the previous regime, under Mubarak. Why do you say that?

HAMID: Well, under Mubarak there was at least some toleration for the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups. They had some presence in parliament. There was a critical independent media, but what's really changed now is - it's not just an authoritarian order, but you have millions of ordinary Egyptians who are fervently and passionately backing this new order and they want the military to be more aggressive with the opposition and not less. So I think when authoritarianism is mixed in with this populism and hyper nationalism, it becomes much more frightening and actually much more resilient.

HEADLEE: What exactly do you want the United States to do? You argue that the United States should cut off military aid, that seems pretty clear. But is there anything else that the U.S. could do to influence policy there?

HAMID: It can't just be a one-off suspension of military aid. It has to be part of a broader strategy in the medium to longer term as well. And the question is, if we suspend aid and there start to be short-term costs, are we just going to back down again? So I think there's really a need here to stay the course and also to offer positive incentives over the next two to three years to say, well, listen, if the military reigns in its excesses and starts to reintegrate supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and other opponents of the coup, then there can be additional assistance. There's an IMF loan that will still be under discussion, there's billions of dollars of aid, not just from the U.S., but also from the EU and other international donors. So it's not as if this is a small amount of money.

And I think it's also worth noting that there is no substitute for U.S. military assistance. It's not just about the dollar figure, it's about a military to military relationship that has been built up over decades. And Egypt's army can't effectively run in terms of its fighter jets and tanks without the crucial spare parts and equipment that the U.S. offers. So these aren't small things. So when people say, well, the U.S. actually doesn't have that much leverage - that's actually not entirely correct. And I think we're consistently underestimating the degree of leverage we have with the Egyptian military.

HEADLEE: And you're also talking about things such as the loan from the International Monetary Fund, I assume you're asking the United States to at least change or alter the terms of loans like that, coming from the United Nations' response, to the International Monetary Fund as you mentioned. But what is in it for the United States? I mean, when the United States, as you mention, is dealing with a lot of very severe problems, not only internationally, but at home as well. As you know, our government is currently shut down. We are in the midst of a very slow economic recovery. Why would this be a high priority for the United States?

HAMID: The problem with U.S. policy is we wait until things get really bad and then we act. I don't think we should make that same mistake in Egypt. Authoritarian stability is a myth, it might work in the short run, but if this government doesn't have the consent of various Egyptians across the political spectrum, then it's a very brittle stability and it's one that could kind of collapse at any moment. And Egypt is a bellwether for the region. It plays an important role in the region. And the last thing we want is to have the rise of radicalism and militancy in the Sinai, which could hurt American interests in terms of terrorism down the road.

HEADLEE: And that I wanted you to give us a few more details about, the idea of Egypt as both a bellwether and an influence on the region. What place has Egypt held in the past as sort of a leader - a country that others in the Middle East and that area of the world look to? And what difference does it make if Egypt is then unstable?

HAMID: Well, we're talking about one-fourth of the entire Arab population. We're talking about a country that has traditionally been the cultural and political center of the Arab world. And you could even see it, that after the coup, that had a negative fallout in Tunisia, for example, where the opposition there was thinking about their own Egyptian scenario and bringing down the government there through mass protest.

So what happens in Egypt doesn't stay in Egypt, and of course what happens in the Sinai has an effect on Israel. And the last thing we want, as I mentioned earlier, was to have a kind of al-Qaeda or extremist foot hold in Sinai down the road if this insurgency keeps on getting worse. So it's hard to really anticipate what the consequences will be in the short-term, but I think that's, for a long time, been the mistake in the U.S. approach to the Middle East. We don't anticipate the long-term consequences of our policy decisions.

HEADLEE: That's Shadi Hamid. He's director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. He joined us from his office in Doha. Shadi, as always, thank you so much.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.