Analysis: Kerry’s failed mission in Cairo

For the second time in less than a year, an American envoy bearing gifts was met with violent protests.

Kerry and Morsi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kerry and Morsi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There must have been some soul-searching in Washington last week, following Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Cairo. Gone are the days of Hosni Mubarak, America’s staunch ally, leader of the Arab world, and keeper of the region’s stability and of the peace treaty with Israel.
For the second time in less than a year, an American envoy bearing gifts was met with violent protests.
Last July, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, coming to Cairo for a first contact with the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi – the Muslim Brotherhood candidate – found herself confronted by mobs of non-Islamist opponents of the regime as well as Copts angry at America’s support for the Brothers that it was claimed had been instrumental in their victory.
This time, however, it seemed as if most of the country was up in arms. There were demonstrations near the American Embassy and the Foreign Ministry; the National Salvation Front, encompassing almost all non-Islamist movements, refused to meet the visitor and nongovernmental media attacked him relentlessly.
They were outraged by America’s call for all political parties to take part in the forthcoming parliamentary elections at a time when the opposition is calling for a boycott.
Mohamed ElBaradei, one of its leaders, said that it was an unwarranted interference into Egyptian internal affairs.
The opposition rejects elections held according to the new constitution, because they do not accept its legitimacy.
They want a neutral government to oversee the electoral process, to ensure that it is free and transparent with none of the massive fraud involved in the referendum.
ElBaradei and his ally Hamdeen Sabahi – leader of the popular Nasserist movement – announced that they would not meet with Kerry, while Amr Moussa, third leader of the Front and a seasoned diplomat, did agree to see him, but only for what was called “a private meeting,” not as a member of the Front, but in his capacity as president of the Congress Party. Kerry did phone ElBaradei on his arrival to Cairo on March 2, but was unable to make him change his mind.
The American ambassador had invited 11 members of the opposition to meet with the high ranking visitor, but only six came. It transpired that Kerry reiterated his country’s official policy, which is the need to hold elections to ensure the stability of Egypt.
Three opposition members stood their ground, while the other three said they might be induced to vote, should the electoral process be transparent and devoid of fraud or coercion.
The secretary of state who had thrown the might of his country behind his efforts at effecting a reconciliation between Morsi and the opposition, or at least getting them to agree on a dialogue, had failed in his mission. Yet his visit had another purpose, not only urging Morsi to respect democratic values, but also to stress the paramount importance of Egypt in the region, and the necessity of keeping the peace with Israel. In his talks with the heads of the Egyptian intelligence community, he insisted on the need to deal with the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula and to prevent weapons smuggling into the Gaza strip.
However, he also addressed the severe economic crisis and promised to transfer $250 million to Egypt (out of the billion pledged by Obama a year ago), but demanded that Morsi ratify a deal with the International Monetary Fund, granting a loan of $4.8 billion.
It has not happened yet, both because of the political instability in the country, and because no solution has been found to deal with an unexpected snag: lending with interest is prohibited by the Shari’a – Islamic law.
Should a solution be found, and the deal go through, it would open the way for further loans at reduced interest from other countries, as well as investments from international companies. However, the IMF loan comes with strings attached: Morsi has to launch sweeping economic reforms and cancel subventions on staples, which might intensify the deep economic, social and political crisis in the country. The situation is bad enough as it is.
Egypt is perilously close to chaos. There are riots and mass protests against the regime of the Muslim Brothers, calls for an end to their rule and for Morsi to resign.
Suddenly it seems as if the people want the army to take over. In several cities there have been attempts through legal procedures to appoint the minister of defense, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to take over temporarily.
Dozens have died and thousands have been wounded in confrontations between protesters and security forces. The people who take to the streets are mostly good Muslims who do not want to be ruled by the Shari’a, and have lost confidence in Morsi.
Bands of extremist militants, among them members of the so-called “Black block” preach civil disobedience; it started in Port Said and has spread to other cities along the Suez canal as well as elsewhere in the country. Police buildings are routinely attacked and even put to the torch; workers go on strike; there are popular roadblocks on some of the major roads.
Strangely enough, Morsi does not appear to be worried and keeps on saying that Egypt is doing well and everything will be fine. At the same time he is feverishly appointing his men to every public office – be it local or national – in a concerted effort to concentrate all powers in the Brotherhood.
Was the secretary of state aware of the true state of affairs in the country? Was he informed that what is happening is a fight to the last for the nature of post-revolutionary Egypt? The choice is stark. Going forward to democracy and development, or going backward into a radical Islamic regime. By insisting that the opposition accept the rules of the game set down by Morsi and take part in the electoral process Kerry has angered large segments of the population.
Americans are blamed for having bolstered Mubarak’s dictatorship for so long and now trying to do the same with Morsi. More and more editorials call for the Americans to get out of Egypt with their money and to stop interfering.
Strangely enough Morsi himself does not appear ready to listen to Washington’s entreaties. And so more and more people on Capitol Hill and in the US media are now openly calling for an end to all help to such a dubious ally.
The White House could be checking its options. To keep on helping the Brotherhood impose radical Islam on Egypt, or to give a helping hand to those who are trying to put the country on the path of democracy? For the time being, it appears that America is being reviled by both sides.The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.