The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary: I’m done with crazy Egyptian conspiracy theories

Even as secretary of state, Clinton was reluctant to wade too deep into Egyptian politics. This is good news for Cairo. (Associated Press)
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Hillary Clinton was never really an “Arab Spring” romantic.

Even as thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in January 2011, then-Secretary of State Clinton was calling Hosni Mubarak’s regime “stable” and warning her Obama administration colleagues against “pushing a longtime partner out the door.” She later cooperated with President Mohamed Morsi, despite the Muslim Brotherhood leader’s increasingly autocratic behavior.

That approach put Clinton squarely in the administration’s “realist” camp. As she describes in her new memoir “Hard Choices”:

America will always do what it takes to keep our people safe and advance our core interests … Sometimes that means working with partners with whom we have deep disagreements.

Clinton uses her “realism” to explain why she didn’t press the post-Mubarak military junta or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet despite her apparent willingness to work with Cairo’s latest repressive-yet-pro-Western regime, Clinton will likely steer clear of Egypt, if she’s elected president. In “Hard Choices,” Clinton suggests that she’s fed up with the country’s conspiracy theory-driven political culture.

As in any political memoir, Clinton highlights her victories and sidesteps her shortcomings. She describes at length her successful negotiation with Morsi to broker an Israel-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza in November 2012, which, she emphasizes, was “fraught with risk.”

She leaves out Washington’s failure to reopen pro-democratic American NGOs after Egypt’s military regime shut them down in December 2011 and prosecuted its employees (including the son of a cabinet secretary). And she doesn’t acknowledge that the administration’s policy of amicable “engagement” with the Muslim Brotherhood – which she announced in June 2011 – failed to encourage a more inclusive government. Indeed, it alienated the very political forces that participated in Morsi’s ousting last summer.

Clinton’s unwillingness to press the post-Mubarak military junta or the Muslim Brotherhood reflects the “realist” approach of cooperating with whoever governs Egypt.  But it also reflects her apparent view that there was no other viable choice. As she makes clear in her book, when she tried to engage Egypt’s non-Islamist civilian forces, she was inundated with wild, anti-American conspiracy theories that left a lasting – and quite damaging – impression.

For example, during her first visit to Cairo after Mubarak’s toppling in March 2011, Clinton met with a group of activists at the Four Seasons Hotel. They “argued among themselves, blamed the United States for a variety of sins, and were largely dismissive of electoral politics.”

Clinton also bristles at the fact that throughout the post-Mubarak transition, “supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood accused us of having propped up the Mubarak regime and suspected that we would collude with the military to keep them from power.” Meanwhile, non-Islamists “feared the prospect of Islamist rule and alleged that the United States had conspired with the Brotherhood to force Mubarak out.”

Then, during a July 2012 meeting with Coptic Christians at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, one participant accused Clinton aide Huma Abedin of being “a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Protests against Washington’s supposed conspiracy with the Brotherhood further marred Clinton’s visit.

In the grand scheme of Egypt’s post-Mubarak story, these incidents should be, at most, footnotes. But “Hard Choices” suggests that they profoundly shaped the former secretary’s attitude toward the country. “There is little reason to believe that restored military rule will be any more sustainable than it was under Mubarak,” Clinton writes. “To do so it will have to be more inclusive, more responsible for the needs of the people, and eventually, more democratic.”

Clinton seems quite pessimistic that this will happen anytime soon, and she articulates no U.S. role for encouraging Egypt in a more progressive political direction.

After years of chaos and conspiracy theories, Clinton seems Cairoed out.