Your Best Friend Hates You
Of all the puzzling remarks made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, naming Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his regime as one of America’s strongest and most strategic allies in the Middle East is perhaps the most puzzling.
What is strange about the statement is that it portrays one of the strongest proponents of anti-Americanism in the Middle East as one of America’s closest friends. It seems that Ms Rice, just like other senior politicians and decision-makers in America, were fooled by the Egyptian regime’s international facade, which does not reveal its reality.
The Egyptian regime was named as America’s regional best friend because of its unreserved willingness to comply with the American foreign policy agenda. It has demonstrated this by providing logistical assistance for the US invading troops during the war on Iraq, by its stance towards the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, and most importantly during the last months when Hamas came to power, by its willingness not to challenge American policies in the Middle East. Yet, these reasons should not qualify the Egyptian regime as a “friend” or an “ally” that genuinely shares common interests with the American administration, or actually supports its policies.
The Egyptian regime adheres to the US foreign policy agenda solely because it needs the US support as a source of legitimacy to substitute its eroding internal popularity. Clear from what the late president Anwar Sadat said, the regime similarly believes that the United States controls “99% of the game” of politics in the Middle East. It is a perfect source of power and legitimacy to rely on and build relations with in order to maintain power.
But doing so requires that the Egyptian regime maintains a monopoly in having relations with the US. The reason is rather straightforward: if different political groups were able to develop relations with the US, they would be able to discuss different issues and reach a common understanding on some of those issues. Most importantly, they would be able to objectively present themselves, and consequently overcome the negative images of the political opposition that have been propagated by the Egyptian regime. But if this happened, there would then be no justification for the American administration to continue its unchecked support for one of the world’s most repressive, tyrannical, corrupt and authoritarian regimes. Therefore, maintaining a monopoly over relations with the US is a critical necessity for Mubarak’s regime for it to maintain its illegitimate rule — rule that has been ongoing for over 50 years, 26 of which have been under the same, never-democratically-elected president.
To maintain this monopoly the Egyptian regime uses its media outlets, most importantly newspapers and local TV Channels, to promote anti-Americanism. Through its anti-American sentiment, the regime portrays itself as a patriotic regime that takes strong stances against US foreign policy. The regime, which secretly provided logistical assistance for US forces illegally invading Iraq, nevertheless publicly opposed the war and spoke out loudly against it. The regime’s president, who refused to meet any member of the democratically-elected Palestinian cabinet, publicly supported the “democratic choice” of the Palestinian people (as if he had any respect to democracy!) yet collaborated with international players, and other Palestinian factions in besieging it. The regime makes it a point to exaggerate its anti-American sentiment, so as to divert attention away from its concessions and unchecked adherence to the American policy in the Middle East.
Parallel to its anti-American sentiment, the regime defames as traitors any of its opponents who attempt to have any dialogue with the United States. A few years ago, the well-known liberal sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was sentenced to 5 years in prison for “providing information that distorts Egypt image to external parties.” Of course the information was nothing more than election statistics, and Ibrahim was released a few months later, thanks to American pressure.
A few years later, Ayman Nour emerged as a smart young liberal politician who could challenge Mubarak’s long-lasting authoritarian rule. As soon as American think tanks and policymakers started referring to Nour as a possible alternative for Mubarak during Egypt’s “democracy spring” in 2005, the regime and its media outlets started defaming Nour as a traitor. A few months later, and right after the presidential “democracy spring” was over, the same judge who sent Ibrahim to prison sentenced Nour to five years in prison over a fabricated forgery case.
Even the Kefaya (“Enough!”) movement was portrayed by the regime as an American invention. President Mubarak said in an interview with the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper that he is fully aware of the “secret relations Kefaya and the Muslim Brotherhood have with the United States.” Although none of this is true and Kefaya and the Muslim Brotherhood are not engaged in any official talks with the US, Mubarak’s statements were meant to defame its main opposition groups at the time.
A few months ago when Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc chairman, Saad Al Katatny, met with House majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, a spokesman representing the Egyptian regime openly criticized the meeting and defamed the Muslim Brotherhood again as traitors. The accusation overlooked the fact that the meeting took place in the presence of parliament speaker, Fathi Sorour, who had invited al Katatny in the first place.
It is not surprising that this public meeting received more attention from official media than Gamal Mubarak’s visit to the United States or his meeting with President Bush, both of which were veiled in secrecy. Clearly, the Egyptian regime’s intent is that opposition groups should have no contacts, dialogue or any sort of relations with American officials, as these will contribute to improved mutual understanding.
This anti-American sentiment, used by Mubarak’s regime as a tool for survival, increases hostility towards America in the Egyptian street. Not only do Egyptian people feel the US is pursuing an unjust foreign policy in the region and backing their authoritarian regime, but they can also see that it is undermining the nation through intensifying political chaos, through supporting and empowering opposition groups and directing them against Egyptian national interests.
In the era of “neo-terrorism,” or micro-terrorist groups, this increasing hostility only means a threat to American national security. With the rapid boom in technology and communication, it takes no more than a connection to the Internet and a few dollars to develop a bomb and threaten the security and lives of innocents anywhere. Therefore, relying on the strong relations with Egypt’s dictator as a substitute for building bridges of understanding with the Egyptian people is a strategic mistake.
The current and next American administrations have one of two possible alternatives. The first is to continue supporting a regime that complies with all their demands yet spreads embedded anti-Americanism on the domestic level, and suffer the possible consequences of that, which will be devastating to everyone. The second alternative is to support real democracy in Egypt, and realize that the outcome would be a government that would not necessarily serve America’s short term interests in the region. The outcome will be a government that pursues Egypt’s interests, and manifests the people’s will, yet does not fuel widespread inherent hostility towards the United States.
Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a board member of Ikhwan Web, The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikwan) Official English Website.