Washington Watch: Chaos awaits Kerry in Cairo

Kerry needs to speak out forcefully in demanding Morsi keep his promises of democratic rule, honor commitments, guarantee religious tolerance, and carry out political and economic reform.

Netanyahu, Kerry at the US Capitol 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Netanyahu, Kerry at the US Capitol 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry will get a baptism of fire when he heads for the Middle East later this month.
Israel is essentially a courtesy call, and making it his first stop can help allay the paranoia of the uber-sensitive Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters in the US and in Israel who have been trashing President Barack Obama for the past four years for never coming to visit.
Despite telling Israeli and Palestinian leaders in weekend phone calls that restarting peace talks is a high priority, Kerry knows nothing can happen until Netanyahu forms a new government and the Palestinians hold elections, expected later this year.
Kerry’s most critical stop will be in Cairo, where the most populous and most important Arab country is entering the third year of its revolution and is in danger of becoming a failed state.
The Egyptian economy is on the verge of collapse, unemployment is soaring, the illiteracy rate is alarming, the crucial tourism industry has been decimated and the blood of protesters stains the streets.
President Mohamed Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader who rode to office on a wave of yearning for freedom and promises of democracy and jobs, has quickly become another repressive autocrat. Unlike his secular predecessors, he is an Islamist who seeks to impose religious law on the Egyptian people. He rammed through a new Islamist constitution which erases lines between religion and state, and turned his brutal security forces on demonstrators who objected.
The hopes kindled two years ago in Tahrir Square by the overthrow of the hated Hosni Mubarak are being trampled there by Morsi’s police.
Morsi and his partners have little experience running a government or an economy, and those who do fled after the revolution to the Gulf and to Europe and are not coming back. He has focused more on instituting Islamist rule and entrenching the Brotherhood in power than on delivering his promises – and voter demands – for jobs, economic recovery and greater freedom.
Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Kerry’s message to Morsi should be: “[You] cannot realistically prevent violent, destabilizing protests without a serious policy for resuscitating the failing economy, attracting investments and spurring job creation.”
Morsi fired the former pro-Western military leaders and picked as his chief of staff a general who has called for the United States to “permanently” remove its forces from the Middle East and show more forceful support for the Palestinian cause.
Lt.-Gen. Sedky Sobhy has said “one-sided” support for Israel has fueled anti-American hatred in the region and has been a recruiting tool for Islamic radicals. Some American experts on the region believe his appointment portends a strategic realignment between Washington and Cairo.
A sign of that was apparent in this week’s red carpet welcome for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian leader to visit Cairo since Egypt made peace with Israel.
THE BILLIONS in aid America been sending Egypt for more than three decades are viewed by many as a long-term lease on its peace treaty with Israel.
That’s one reason why often when Members of Congress threatened to cut it for whatever reason, the lobbying team that springs into action to block the move was Israeli diplomats.
Morsi has said he intends to abide by the treaty, but his anti-Semitic outbursts have been troubling and his attempts at damage control have only made matters worse.
In a March 2010 speech that recently surfaced Morsi denounced Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of American goods because of US support for Israel. When confronted by a group of US senators, he lamely insisted his remarks were taken out of context and he didn’t mean all Jews, just those who control the media.
Kerry, who has Jewish roots and a Jewish brother, needs to remind Morsi that the Obama administration has condemned his statements as “deeply offensive” and should be repudiated, and warned such hate mongering can do great damage to Egypt’s standing in Washington.
US aid buys more than the peace treaty: strategic cooperation, intelligence sharing, preferential treatment for American warships using the Suez Canal, access to bases and some (but not enough) cooperation in combating infiltration across the Israel-Sinai border and interdiction of weapons smuggling into Gaza.
A report issued last fall by the Washington Institute and reported here at the time said it would be a mistake to listen to those in the Congress who want to cut off all aid just as it would be wrong to keep sending it unconditionally.
Instead, Morsi should be presented with a set of well-defined benchmarks to meet on regional peace, bilateral strategic cooperation, adherence to the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, the fight against terrorism, and political reform as conditions for continued American aid and political backing.
Congressional experts who follow developments closely feel Egypt’s relationship with Israel will never again be as close as it was under Hosni Mubarak, whose cold peace will look warm and fuzzy by comparison.
At the civilian government-to-government level there is no relationship; Netanyahu and Morsi rarely if ever speak to each other. But at the military level it is a different story, they say. The two security establishments are in “close daily contact.”
Jerusalem and Washington want the Egyptian military to remain strong, they report, particularly in protecting border security. Morsi may have replaced his top generals with Islamist loyalists, but the officer corps remains pro-Western, much of it trained and educated in the United States.
This is not a time to restrict aid to the Egyptian military, they add. The way things are going the military could be running the country again at any moment, and even if Morsi’s government survives, we will still need them.
Morsi came to power through democratic elections, but there is growing doubt that he will permit free elections when his term ends. The Muslim Brotherhood is not democratic, likes being in power and doesn’t want to risk losing it. As often happens in the Muslim world, the road to democracy leads through the mosques, but the exits are blocked and it can go no further.
That’s what Morsi and the Islamists appear to be doing in Egypt. Kerry needs to speak out forcefully in demanding Morsi keep his promises of democratic rule, honor commitments, guarantee religious tolerance, and carry out political and economic reform. It is in everyone’s interest.