The administration’s keyhole approach to Egypt

The commercial was never deemed newsworthy although it has been airing every day for months. In it, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt pleads for contributions to a common account to rehabilitate and preserve mosques and churches. For decades, Copts had to get special presidential permission to repair or even repaint a church. To millions of Egyptians and not just the Copts, it is a welcome message of unification.  For the first time in living memory,the new discourse places Copts and Moslems in one sentence; mosques and churches in one common account.

This is just one example of the changes taking place on the social level. This new emphasis since June 30, on ‘we are all Egyptian,’  made no headlines. To Egyptians however, it represents a refreshing departure from the Brotherhood tenet of divide and rule.

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But the most seriously overlooked aspect in the post-June 30 reality is the relationship of Egyptians with their army and police force.  Egypt’s sizeable army is not made up of mercenaries. These soldiers and conscripts hail from all walks of life. They come mostly from the provinces, from families at the grassroots levels. Rather than view the army as a ruling Junta, the majority of Egyptians see in it their sons protecting the borders and fighting terror.  

Over a thousand members of the police force have been killed since June 30 in terror attacks that focused primarily on security forces. Their families and neighbors are angered much more by these killings than any disregard for human rights in a fight that they see as a fair response to terror. The daily killings of members of the police force garner much more sympathy than the current spate of arrests of activists that represent perhaps a security overreach but is shrugged off as collateral damage.

After three tumultuous years, Egyptians want security, stability and a return to work and are more likely to resent anyone they perceive as standing in the way of a return to normality. Neither Brotherhood nor youth activists have understood that.  And so the general distaste for the Brotherhood now extends to the youth activists. Whereas during the days of Mubarak groups like April 6 had wide appeal in their calls for his removal, their message now seems almost anachronistic. They were the golden youth of the January 25 revolution. Now that appeal has eroded. Seemingly obsessed by demonstrations and maintaining a constant state of revolution, they have neither presented a vision for change nor an alternative system. The message of these young activists which does not extend beyond a refusal of the current status quo and the lack of rural outreach has resulted in a near absence of support at the grassroots level.

The Obama administration’s current reading of the political situation through the narrow prism of the views of the Moslem Brotherhood and youth activists represents, in my opinion, the most serious failing in its foreign policy approach to Egypt. Having bought into the Moslem Brotherhood myth that they spoke for and represented most Egyptians, the administration is now repeating the same mistake in overestimating the appeal, reach and representation of the vocal activists and is again dealing with the government in Cairo on that basis.  Stuck in its impressions formed in 2011, it has failed to grasp the shift in the general mood and priorities. The result is a policy that has only added to the disconnect between Egypt and the U.S.

For months the U.S. administration has been sending out conflicting signals to Cairo that speak of an utter lack of understanding of the reality on the ground. First, a decision was taken in October 2013 to ‘recalibrate’ aid to Egypt, and then in January the administration lobbied Congress for permission to give aid to the Egyptian government.  The statements deploring the ousting of Mohamed Morsi because he was elected were contradicted a few months later by a  dismissal of the landslide approval of the new post-Morsi constitution as ‘just one vote’ that did not count.

As the administration continues to be paralyzed by its own vacillation, Cairo has moved to enhance its ties with Russia and there is talk of a forthcoming arms deal. While the Egyptian government has repeatedly made clear that it has no intention of breaking the decades old relationship with the U.S., Cairo’s last move does represent a waning of U.S. influence and interests in Egypt. With the aid card already played with little success in bringing back the Moslem Brotherhood or at least reintegrating them into society and politics, the administration  would be wise to ‘recalibrate’ its own discourse with Cairo.

Khayat is founder and chairman of an asset management company based in Egypt. She is also head of the economic committee of the Free Egyptians Party, a political party founded after the 2011 revolution.