Where the U.S. went wrong.
The Egyptian military’s recent removal from office of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi “was not a coup,” judged the former United States Air Force lieutenant colonel and Middle East expert Rick Francona, but rather the “people rising up.” Francona spoke at Washington, DC’s National Press Club during an October 1, 2013, panel featuring national security experts who had just completed a three-day visit on behalf of the Westminster Institute. The panel expressed dismay that the United States was not properly responding to developments in country described by Westminster Institute executive director Katherine Gorka as “pivotal” to American interests in the region.
Retired United States Army Major General Paul E. Vallely referenced a popular Egyptian understanding of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government’s fall as a “second revolution” following the “first revolution” ousting Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Katherine’s husband, counterinsurgency expert Sebastian Gorka, noted that a petition presented to Morsi calling for early elections had gathered 22 million signatures. Subsequently an estimated 33 million had taken to the streets to call for Morsi’s removal in early July 2013 in a country of 85 million.
Vallely’s army colleague, the former colonel and military commentator Ken Allard, discussed a popular Egyptian perception of MB as “terrorists” given their treatment of women and minorities. Francona in particular cited anti-Christian violence by MB supporters that destroyed 1,000 Christian homes after Morsi fell. Allard likewise discussed the delegation’s meeting with the Coptic Church’s Pope Tawadros II, a man “who watched his churches burn.” Many Egyptians additionally felt that the MB in power merely “governed for themselves,” Sebastian Gorka related.
As a result, the Egyptian military commander General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi spoke of a “civil war” absent Morsi’s removal in a meeting with Gorka and the other panelists. This was particularly true given that there was “no impeachment vehicle” in the old Egyptian constitution, as Vallely noted, a provision now contemplated for a new constitution. The “Egyptians are more united in” supporting the military’s actions “than we might think,” Francona judged. Everyone with whom the delegation spoke similarly surprised Sebastian Gorka because they “sounded like they were coordinating their message” but were not.
In contrast to MB, the Egyptian people had a “level of trust” in their military, Allard observed, because conscription meant that the military “in Egypt…is us.” Given what Vallely described as a “great relationship” between the Egyptian and American militaries, Allard also noted that Egyptian military leaders had learned to respect civilian authority from American training. Egyptian military leaders, Francona noted, for example, argued that the Egyptian military does not have a history of attacking the populace. Rather, after the military intervention against MB the “people felt comfortable going out into the streets.” El-Sisi’s personal qualities, meanwhile, struck Sebastian Gorka as “really sterling stuff” and he wished “to have some generals in the US military” like El-Sisi.
The Obama Administration’s unwillingness to support the popularly-backed Egyptian military has the majority of Egyptians “very upset with the United States,” according to Vallely. Egyptians were “incredulous” towards current American policy in the Middle East, according to Francona, and asked Americans “why are you doing this to us now,” in Sebastian Gorka’s words. “Friends do not treat friends this way,” Allard quoted Egyptian military leaders as saying, who wondered along with other Egyptians why the United States would not oppose MB. In this respect of American support for MB, Ambassador Anne Patterson “was a hot topic” in Egypt, Vallely observed. Yet to such Egyptian criticism of American support for MB, Francona retorted, “Why did you elect them?”
Egyptians complained about Americans who “push everything in our eyes” on to others with respect to democratic development, Vallely added. Yet the message reported from Egypt by Sebastian Gorka was “don’t judge us by your criteria” when evaluating the Egyptian military’s action. After all, America’s own democratic development was a long process involving events such as a civil war.
Speculating about the motives behind current American Egypt policy, Allard wondered it resulted “by agenda or by design” or was just “totally inept.” Sebastian Gorka in particular could not believe one American government analyst’s view that MB “will save us from Al Qaeda,” even though the two groups merely differ in tactics, not strategic goals. For Allard, a media that had transformed from a “watch dog” to a “lap dog” aggravated poor policy formation. In this vein Sebastian Gorka noted one incident in which media coverage showed violence in a public square while a man living there filmed it at peace with his smartphone. With respect to public relations, though, Francona critiqued that the Egyptian military was “not doing a good job selling” its position.
Yet the panel agreed that Egypt, beset by multiple problems, needed all the help it could get. Allard noted that banks refused to exchange his Egyptian money after leaving Egypt because economic conditions there made an exchange rate impossible to determine. Sebastian Gorka as well observed “absolutely empty” hotels in Egypt, a sign of how that country’s critically important tourist industry was suffering, in part due to travel advisories from various governments.
“What came up more than anything was Libya,” Vallely remembered from the trip. Egypt’s border here was “highly exposed,” raising concerns expressed by the investigative reporter Ken Timmerman in the audience that Libya could become a “staging ground” for weapons and terrorists. Vallely as well analogized the Sinai to southern Lebanon as a terrorist base and MB tactics of winning popular support with aid efforts to similar Hezbollah tactics in Lebanon. In contrast, “Israel is the least of their worries,” was how Francona assessed Egyptian threat perception.
The lack of American support had serious consequences in this situation. Without American logistical support, for example, the Egyptians could not use their AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to monitor the Libyan border. Egyptian military leaders had also noted that Apaches would enable “precision attacks” on “bad guys,” Sebastian Gorka said. The lack of American logistical support also meant that Egypt could not operate its recently delivered F-16 fighters, while older American-made F-4 Phantom fighters were no longer operational due to unavailable spare parts. Thus the Egyptian military had to resort to using Egypt’s stock of Soviet-built MiG-21 fighters, a measure that presented the possibility of Russia renewing its influence in Egypt with logistical support for this weaponry.
Loss of American influence in Egypt was no trivial matter, for this country is the “center of gravity” for the region, Sebastian Gorka reminded. Despite the global attention given to recent events, “Syria is practically irrelevant compared to Egypt,” he noted, citing Egypt’s population and the presence of Al Azhar University in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s leading theological center. Allard worried about the United States being “in danger of losing a strategic ally” in both the “East-West” dimension with respect to Israel as well as the “North-South” dimension with respect to the Nile. Vallely as well noted the importance of the Suez Canal that Egyptian officials vowed to protect.
Sebastian Gorka also recalled Egypt’s role as the birthplace of the MB, an organization that works “hand in glove with Al Qaeda.” The West, meanwhile, is “losing Turkey” as a country which Islamist forces have “taken back in time” to before the legacy of Ataturk. Thus Sebastian Gorka advocated international efforts should to counteract this development by making Egypt a “modern Muslim state.” “We will be safer,” he said, if Egypt rejects MB.
Perhaps Francona best summarized the panel’s theme. Egyptians know the importance of Egypt, he said, but “they wonder if we know.”
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