Don't Blame Obama For Egypt's Political Mess

An Egyptian shouts slogans against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in Cairo on April 15. Pro-government elites in Egypt remain convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi’s election as president was somehow the work of the United States. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

There is an Egyptian saying that goes like this: "Once you drink from the Nile, you will come back again."

I first drank from the Nile in June 1993, and I have been coming back ever since. That said, I took an almost two-year hiatus from Egypt that lasted from April 2014 until last week.

I stayed away for a variety of reasons, from the general (I was growing weary of airplanes, and I ached for my daughters on long trips) to the specific (I needed to actually write the book I had been talking about for the previous few years). But also, quite frankly, the decision came out of fear.

When my friend and colleague Michele Dunne was deported from Egypt in December 2014 shortly after arriving at the airport in Cairo, the message to Washington-based Egypt-watchers was clear: "You are not welcome." I took little comfort when my friends in Cairo assured me that I would be fine.

When I was disinvited to a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in New York in September 2014 because I had used the term coup d'état to describe the events of July 3, 2013, I was not shocked, but it was another signal to stay away.

Then there was the upside-down logic of supporters of el-Sissi (who uniformly brooked no criticism of the man), which was also disturbing to the point of making me feel unwelcome in a place where I had always felt an overwhelmingly warm embrace.

When I left Egypt in April 2014, I breathed a sigh of relief, a feeling generally reserved for departures from Saudi Arabia's Riyadh and Qatar's Doha.

I was gone too long, way too long. But I finally returned to Cairo on May 18, to drink from the Nile again, following a short trip to Tunisia, and I was immediately reminded of those clichéd intangibles about Egypt: its "historical weight." its sheer size and scale, and its importance. But not for the reasons policy geeks always refer to, such as the Suez Canal, peace with Israel, its large military and its huge population.

Rather, I am referring to the importance of Egypt as a place, as a civilization. On a practical and political level, these are just words. Egypt, after all, is just a country. Yet, in a metaphysical sense, they seem entirely appropriate, and anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time in Egypt probably understands what I am driving at.

The downside of all this is the way in which Egyptians try to use these ideas to extract assistance from other, wealthier countries. Sometimes Egyptian officials seem incredulous that there are questions concerning their annual aid package from the United States. Congress should appropriate assistance to Egypt because it is Egypt. It should be Americans' privilege to be so closely aligned with a country of such singularity.

Anyway, this is a lengthy way of saying that I'm glad I went back. I learned a lot, the most important of which was:

Street politics seem to be at a dead end, at least for now. In elite circles, there is a lot of anger and concern about the government's iron fist and an economy that lurches from one crisis to another, but Egyptians have demobilized. Sure, there were protests on Sinai Liberation Day over the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia and outrage after the police raided the press syndicate on May 1, but Egyptians are not inclined to process their grievances through street politics anymore.

They've come a long way from the time when they believed that demonstrations were the best and purist way to advance their agendas. The Egyptian government has made protesting too dangerous and superfluous an act.

None of my friends believed that demonstrations would have much of an effect on Egypt's currently authoritarian and unstable trajectory. They prefer to hunker down, build networks and hope for an opportunity to push change at some point in the future.

One friend, who has long been involved in agitating for a more open and just society, admitted that although he believed Egypt's current situation was "unsustainable"—a word I heard quite often—he feared another uprising because "every time we have an uprising, the country becomes less liberal."

The fever of el-Sissi-mania that gripped Egypt in 2013 and 2014 has broken. Best that anyone can tell, el-Sissi continues to enjoy broad support among Egyptians, but there is also less confidence in him than before.

One friend told me that things were "90 percent normal" and that he was looking forward to tourists coming back soon. Then last week's disappearance of EgyptAir Flight MS804 dealt the country a heavy blow.

Against the backdrop of this tragedy, other Egyptians who were already pessimistic about Egypt's economic prospects were extremely bummed out. It was not just the collective mourning for the folks aboard the flight. As people braced for a further contraction of the tourism sector (I think I was the only one on my floor in my hotel), they also voiced very little confidence in el-Sissi's ability to manage the economy; complained that talented ministers were not empowered; assailed the governor of the Central Bank of Egypt, a friend and former business partner of Gamal Mubarak (son of former President Hosni Mubarak); and fretted that el-Sissi was listening to the wrong people.

Then there was the way people have reacted to the excesses of the police and internal security forces. Over the past few years, the elites and professionals, who are an important source of support for el-Sissi, seemed to not be unduly concerned about the country's deteriorating record on human rights, until it began to touch them.

Collectively, Egypt's doctors never questioned the brutal conduct of the police until they raided El-Mataria Teaching Hospital and assaulted two doctors in late January. This was a significant affront to the dignity of the hospital, its patients and the physicians who care for people there.

Of course, it is hard to generalize, but I am told that while the doctors are not in open revolt against el-Sissi like members of the press, they are far more willing today to level criticism at the president or the government than before.

For Egypt's elite, it is all Washington's fault…still. Almost four years after the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi became Egypt's first post–Mubarak president, pro-government elites remain convinced that his election and the plurality the Brothers enjoyed in the People's Assembly in 2012 were somehow the work of the United States.

The persistence of this narrative is odd, mainly because it contradicts the record. Egyptians voted in significant numbers for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party during three rounds of legislative elections in late 2011 and early 2012. There were few, if any, questions about the fairness of the electoral process and the voting itself.

Morsi's election to the presidency was, however, more problematic. There was low voter turnout and credible accusations that the Brotherhood threatened to destabilize Egypt should the other candidate, Ahmed Shafik—who was Mubarak's last prime minister—win.

The fact that the High Presidential Elections Commission and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces caved does not have much to do with the United States. Egypt's elites are convinced—based on false quotes in the Egyptian media—that Hillary Clinton called Egyptian officials and pressured them to throw the election in favor of Morsi in order to avoid violence.

Count me skeptical, but that doesn't negate the fact that the belief that the United States enabled the Brotherhood's accumulation of power in 2011 and 2012 remains deeply ingrained.

However, rather than manipulating Egyptian politics, the Obama administration was respecting political outcomes that Egyptians produced. Still, I think I understand why the United States remains the target of criticism when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood moment.

It is more than the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda, which convinced Egyptians that Washington wanted to "change the character of the regime," or the fact that the United States tried to work with Morsi during his brief tenure.

Since July 2013, Egypt's leaders, pro-government media and elites have sought to radically reinterpret history in a way that denies the important place of the Brothers in the development of Egyptian national identity and the country's political history in the 20th century.

For a certain set, the Brotherhood is not Egyptian but an organization with a worldview that is somehow alien to Egypt, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the Brotherhood sprang from fertile ground in the late 1920s to become the country's leading political and social movement by the beginning of the 21st century.

There was a Pan-Islamic aspect to much of the Brotherhood's program, but the group's charters, programs and platforms dating back to the 1980s are concerned first and foremost with Egypt.

In el-Sissi's Egypt, it became imperative to delegitimize the Brothers, making it easier to try to physically dismantle the group because of the illegitimate way the current leadership came to power—a military coup (backed by millions, sure, but a coup nonetheless). The very presence of the Brotherhood in the political arena would only highlight this problem.

This explains the ferocious way in which pro-government elites ferociously deny the Brotherhood's place in Egyptian history and the aggressive response to those who argue otherwise.

No doubt some will read this as a defense of the Brothers. It is not. I hold no brief for a group whose members hold values that contradict my own, who have done considerable damage to Egypt's social cohesion, who traffic in pernicious conspiracy theories about the United States and who are popularizers of anti-Semitism, among a variety of other transgressions.

That this is the Brotherhood's worldview does not negate their role in Egyptian history. The very fact that Egyptian elites seemingly refuse to wrestle with that, preferring to blame the United States rather than engage in self-reflection, will serve nothing and only continue to haunt Egyptians. It is also a reason, among many, why Egypt will continue to struggle.

All of this, though, is a long way of saying, I cannot wait to go back!

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.