Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Egyptian army’s removal of President Mohammad Morsi gives the Obama administration that rarest of opportunities in foreign policy: a second chance. Getting it right will require understanding where we went wrong the first time.
To some, President Obama’s fundamental error in Egypt policy was to withdraw U.S. support from longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, when thousands of Egyptians first filled Tahrir Square demanding change. In this view, the United States should have stuck by Mubarak, a firm opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood whose soldiers fought alongside U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf war and who remained faithful to Egypt’s peace with Israel despite isolation in the Arab world.
That view, however, is wrong. Mubarak’s failing health meant that his rule was coming to an end, a fact he refused to face, instead surrounding himself with sycophants and acting like a modern pharoah. To U.S. interests, Mubarak had become a liability, and there was a reasonable alternative.
In early 2011, that reasonable alternative was the army. Despite Obama’s soaring rhetoric about the Tahrir activists being the inheritors of Gandhi and King, U.S. policy was effectively to protect American interests in Egypt by supporting the transfer of power from an 82-year-old air force general to a 75-year-old army general, Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Egypt’s army, the country’s most popular institution, could be counted on to navigate political storms and find a civilian captain to steer the ship of state to a safe harbor — or so we thought.
In retrospect, the United States’ great error was born in the over-confidence we placed in the generals. When the White House moved on to Libya and other issues, it effectively put Egypt policy on auto-pilot, deferring to the generals on the pace and content of their “democratic transition.” Everyone knew the generals’ real interest was devising a political system that preserved their power and wealth. But they were “our guys,” men who understood the overlap of U.S. and Egyptian regional security imperatives — keeping the peace with Israel — and they claimed to appreciate the need for a political process that was popular, participatory and legitimate.
This policy was logical. And because no one imagined the breadth of the generals’ political incompetence, it was tragically wrong.
In just 18 months, the all-powerful Tantawi supervised a political process in which a marginal player in the Tahrir Square drama — the Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive, ideological Islamist underground movement — methodically engineered a takeover of Egypt’s political system. Tantawi may have let this happen believing he had found a domestic political player to safeguard the generals’ institutional interests, but reality soon set in. The Brotherhood’s takeover — partly through the ballot box, partly through extralegal means — was so complete that, in August 2012, one of the first moves of its newly elected president was to fire Tantawi. In a region of inept politicians, Tantawi stands out.