The Cairo effect: America’s declining power from the Egyptian perspective

Cairo was the symbol of President Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East. Now, it might also be the symbol of its failure.

December 8, 2013 21:42
4 minute read.
Riot police fire tear gas during clashes with Morsi supporters in Cairo, August 14

Riot police fire tear gas in Cairo 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Cairo was the symbol of President Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East. Now, it might also be the symbol of its failure.

Barack Obama always mocked George W. Bush’s paternalistic approach to foreign policy, according to which developing countries should be treated with the method of “divide and conquer,” when some get the stick, while others get the carrot.

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Obama was right. Bush indeed saw the world in black and white. After all, he was the one that coined the term “axis of evil” and promised his nation to “rid the world of the evil-doers.” But at the same time, with respect to “the good guys,” Bush kept the golden rule of his predecessors – a superpower does not abandon its allies.

The US, which competed with the Soviet Union for the affiliation of the developing countries around the world, understood that in authoritarian regimes, the ruler is the state.

Therefore, when you earn the trust of the ruler his country will be on your side. The name of the game was co-dependence: America kept the rulers in power, and the rulers promoted American interests in the region, or as Henry Kissinger stated, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat made history when he shifted his country’s allegiance from the USSR to the US. One might say that both parties made a good deal: Egypt received financial and military support, while America received the loyalty of the leader of the Arab world.

After Hosni Mubarak’s coming to power, he continued to provide the US with stability in world’s most unstable area. In return, his country received annual aid of a billion dollars.

This money helped Mubarak build one of the strongest armies in the Middle East. That same army guarded America’s interests in the region, and at the same time saved Mubarak’s regime from the threat of the Islamic opposition.

The years went by, but Egypt’s relevance to America did not fade. No wonder Obama chose Cairo as his first visit as a president.

When the regional earthquake dubbed the “Arab Spring” (or rather Islamic winter) began, Mubarak looked to his allies in America for support. In this era, when rulers are crowned and removed from power by the media, a clear statement by an American president can be crucial.

On January 28, the American vice president, Joe Biden, stated that Mubarak shouldn’t step down, and that he is “an ally of ours. And he’s been very responsible on geopolitical interest in the region.” Less than a week later, his boss, Barack Obama, had already firmly demanded the exact opposite.

The next day, Mubarak’s 30-year term came to an end. The final phone conversation between Obama and Mubarak lasted 30 minutes; one minute for every year of loyalty to the American interests.

Despite the fact that the revolution did not bring the liberal fractions to power, the US continued pouring money into the Egyptian economy, and thus backed Mohamed Morsi’s regime. Paradoxically, it was the return of the secular leadership, backed by the military, that convinced America to halt its aid.

Sure, Abdel Fatah Sisi’s counter- revolution was everything but democratic, but one cannot ignore the fact that his regime is much closer ideologically to the US and its allies than that of his Islamic adversary.

In the meanwhile, another Arab ruler, Syria’s Bashar Assad, began struggling for his survival. The uprising in Syria rapidly changed into a bloody civil war. Unlike in Mubarak’s case, Assad’s patron stood loyally by his side. The climax of this loyalty was of course during the aftermath of the chemical attack killing around 1,400 civilians. Russian President Vladimir Putin faced down the entire western world to prevent a possible attack by the US that could have ended Assad’s regime.

Back to the US: the chemical weapons crisis in Syria underlined another important phenomenon: the decline in America’s credibility.

Obama’s “50 shades of red” game with Assad has signaled to the world that sometimes when an American president speaks, he doesn’t mean business.

Egypt’s popular de-facto leader, Sisi, did the math. He remembered Obama’s indecisiveness during Egypt’s uprising and the Carter-like abandonment of Mubarak, not to mention Obama’s lack of support for Sisi’s government. On the other hand, he saw how Russia treats its allies and how far it’s willing to go to keep them in power.

Last Thursday, Russia’s most high-ranking delegation (including foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the defense minister Sergey Shoygu), has landed in Cairo and received the red-carpet welcome. The final results of the visit are still not certain; but it looks like the two countries are headed for a major arms deal and military cooperation. But, more than anything, this deal signals to America that every ally, and even patron, is replaceable.

We might be witnessing a historical process, resulting from America’s policy (or rather lack of policy). All the signs indicate Cairo no longer trusts the Obama government.

Therefore, the Russian bear is becoming a more preferred partner and even patron than Uncle Sam.

In his 2012 article named “After America,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser, has predicted that “Russia, while perhaps engaging in wishful thinking (even schadenfreude) about America’s uncertain prospects, will almost certainly have its eye on the independent states of the former Soviet Union.”

Now, it seems that Russia’s wishful thinking is not only becoming reality, but is also growing further then Brzezinski could have ever imagined.

The writer holds a master’s degree in international relations and a bachelor of law degree from the University of Haifa. He currently works as a parliamentary assistant and legal adviser in the Knesset.

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