The Egypt Policy Dilemma

Aug 23, 2013

The Egypt Policy Dilemma

Update from AIJAC

August 23, 2013
Number 08/13 #05

This Update discusses the major policy dilemmas posed for Western leaders – and especially the US – by the situation in Egypt in the wake of the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters by the military government there over the past week and a half. 

First up is Harvard University’s Chuck Freilich, formerly deputy national-security adviser in Israel, who says that Egypt today places US policymakers where they least like to be – caught in a conflict between US values and US interests. He warns that it was a misperception that Egypt was transitioning to democracy under ousted President Morsi and the Brotherhood, which he says is a fundamentally anti-democratic organisation, but Freilich also identifies two mistakes he believes the US administration has made since the Arab Spring break out there in early 2011.  Freilich also has something to say about Israel’s position in the current situation – including an anecdote from his own dealings with his Egyptian counterparts as an Israeli officer. To read it all, CLICK HERE.

Next up is US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg with a “question and answer” style piece which lays out the dilemmas in Egypt very starkly. He points out bluntly that the only two parties that matter in Egypt now are “the theocratic, fascist church-burners of the Muslim Brotherhood or the authoritarian, coup-plotting civilian-killers of the Egyptian military.” He also notes that the debate about whether US aid should be cut off is almost a moot one, with the Gulf state likely to make up any shortfall if the aid is cut. For Goldberg’s astute attempt to lay out the Egypt dilemma in all its unpleasentness, CLICK HERE. More on the role of the Gulf states in backing the Egyptian military here and here.

Finally, we offer an assessment of the worst case scenario that many have posited from the current clashes – a civil war or Islamist insurgency – from Egyptian politics expert Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He thinks an insurgency is quite possible, and that ironically, it is the very success of the military in their plans to decapitate the Brotherhood by arresting the leadership that may make such an outcome more likely. Trager explains that the Brotherhood is highly disciplined, but once its leadership is removed from the scene, as it largely has been, this makes it impossible for the Brotherhood to change its strategy of street protests or re-enter the political process. For this important analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More general background on the politics of what is happening in Egypt from the Washington Institute’s Adel El-Adawy.

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Egypt: Balancing Interests Over Values

Chuck Freilich 

The National Interest, August 20, 2013

The bloody events in Egypt have placed American policymakers precisely where they least like to be—torn between American strategic interests and ideals. Reconciling the exigencies of realpolitik with support for democracy and human rights has always proven difficult.

That is why Saudi Arabia, a nation antithetical to everything America stands for, is a close ally that the United States has even gone to war to protect. That is why Jordan, led by a moderate despot, is currently the U.S. darling in the Arab world. That is why President Obama has remained impassive despite the slaughter of over one hundred thousand people in Syria, including repeated uses of chemical weapons, but has been more involved in Egypt in which “just” one thousand people have been killed since the military ousted President Morsi.

Part of the problem lies in the misperception, trumpeted by leading American media and some political leaders, that Egypt was undergoing a “transition to democracy” following President Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011. True, Morsi was elected in his country’s first free elections, but Egypt, under the thrall of the Muslim Brotherhood, was undergoing democratization only in the sense that Germany was after free elections gave rise to the Nazis in 1932, the mullahs in Iran in 1979, or Hamas in Gaza in 2006. It is not by chance that the liberal camp in Egypt strongly supported the military’s ouster of Morsi and the harsh measures adopted since then to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentally anti-democratic organization.

To become a Brother is not like registering for the Republican or Democratic parties. The aspiring member undergoes an exhaustive vetting process that can take eight years, in which his total devotion to the Brotherhood is intensely scrutinized. The aspirant will be first inducted into a local neighborhood cell, to which he must devote a considerable portion of his time, faithfully carrying out organizational duties, and which will assess every aspect of his life, both party-related and private, in minute detail. Over the years, the successful aspirant will join successively broader cells which will continue screening his complete ideological purity and commitment. Rather than a political party, it is more like an underground movement.

It is also rabidly anti-American, fundamentally opposed to the values of freedom and pluralism that most Americans cherish, and blatantly anti-Semitic. That the first targets attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in recent days included tens of Christian sites and museums is indicative.

The United States has major strategic interests in Egypt, the Arab country with the largest population and traditionally the leader of the Arab world. It needs a stable Egypt that will remain the head of a moderate, pro-American Arab camp, a force for moderation and stability in a vital region. Without Egypt, there is no pro-American Arab “camp,” and the United States will have a far harder time promoting its interests in this vital region and building Arab coalitions during future crises. Maintaining Egypt’s peace with Israel is a bedrock of stability and American interests in the region and will have a significant impact on the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian progress. Military cooperation with Egypt, such as uninhibited overflights and naval passage through the Suez Canal, is also important. No Arab country can replace Egypt’s pivotal role. The United States also has an interest in promoting democracy throughout the world.

Obama made two egregious errors in his treatment of Egypt since events there began unfolding in 2011. He abandoned Mubarak too rapidly, at a time when the regime might still have been saved, although Obama had no other choice shortly thereafter when his demise became inevitable and defending him would have placed the United States on the “wrong side of history.” Not for the first time, the United States turned on one of its friends, a moderate dictator, but not infinitely more heinous ones, to its own disadvantage. Second, Obama continued “business as usual” following the Muslim Brotherhood’s election, even when it became clear just how antidemocratic the Morsi government was.

He may now be making a third major error, strongly condemning the measures taken by the new military regime, suspending delivery of F-16s and a major joint military exercise, and indicating that further measures may be in the offing (suspension of the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid is the only major leverage left), while concomitantly acquiescing to the regime’s actions in the hopes of preserving the basic relationship. This middle-of-the-road approach has succeeded only in gaining opprobrium from all sides in Egypt, strongly alienating the military regime and risking a rift.

Obama has a few primary options. One is to stand firmly behind American values, as advocated by recent editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post and adopt the calls by senators McCain and Graham to suspend all aid. For all the billions in aid over the decades, however, the United States now finds itself with little leverage in Egypt, and by alienating the regime it risks being left with none. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are already rushing in to fill the diplomatic and economic vacuum, and ultimately Russia will provide weapons without any conditions. The Carter administration’s principled stand when facing a similar situation with the Shah of Iran in 1979 has led to an ongoing nightmare. Not quite the outcomes Washington seeks.

A second option is to unequivocally prioritize strategic interest over normative considerations and back the regime unreservedly; If America can be a strategic ally of the Saudi regime, it can support the new Egyptian regime too. This option may no longer be viable, however, given the administration’s approach towards the events in Egypt to date and the fact that Egypt does not have that one overriding value-balancer, oil.

A third option is Obama’s above-mentioned middle-of-the-road approach. The problem is that this option may very soon prove untenable in the face of the ongoing bloodshed in Egypt, rising public opposition in the United States, the president’s own mixed emotions and the fury of the Egyptian regime.

Let’s be honest. The prospects of Egypt becoming a democracy in any true sense of the word are minimal for a long time to come. Millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets demanding freedom and democratization and they are worthy of our admiration and support, but they are a small part of Egypt’s vast population, and the country as a whole probably lacks the necessary prerequisites. It may, however, very well become an extremist Islamic state, devolve into a chaotic and radical failed state, or revert to complete military dictatorship, all unsavory possibilities. It also faces a clear danger of economic meltdown, regardless of political developments.

There is another possibility. Given time and cautious American encouragement, but not undue pressure for haste, Egypt may also become a semidemocratic state, in which the military continues to play a central role and in which there will be some limitations on freedoms. This is probably the best Washington can realistically hope for. Paradoxically, the greatest hope for this kind of a semidemocratic, stable, moderate, economically viable and pro-American Egypt, at peace with Israel, is for the military to successfully put down the Muslim Brotherhood counter-rebellion and reassert its authority. At the same time, as illegitimate as the Brotherhood is as an organization, it does represent a legitimate, if unfortunate, trend within Egyptian society that cannot be ignored or stamped out, and that must be given some voice. Things have changed in Egypt in the last two years. The people have tasted freedom and power and will not tolerate a reversion to simple military rule.

What is needed, therefore, is for the United States to make clear to the new regime how strongly it values the relationship and temporarily acquiesce to measures that it otherwise finds repugnant. At the same time, American support should be contingent on a gradual reversion to civilian rule and measured adoption of a more liberal constitution, steps to which the military is already committed. U.S. and domestic Egyptian pressures for overly rapid democratization were among the primary reasons for the failures to date.

Israel has a particular interest in Egypt’s course. Had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power, it is likely that it would have abrogated the peace treaty within a matter of years. Worse, it might ultimately have even rejoined the war camp, whether out of conscious design, or more likely, at least for the foreseeable future, due to an inability to withstand public pressure to act and its own natural inclinations following some regional conflagration, such as a future round between Israel and Hamas or Hezbollah. The Egyptian military, fully cognizant of the consequences of further warfare with Israel, will not be drawn in.

In 1979 I was a young officer in the Israel Defense Forces assigned to a joint commission with the Egyptian military which was responsible for implementing the recently signed peace treaty. For decades Egypt, like all other Arab countries, had maintained a policy of total hostility towards Israel, banning any contact whatsoever, and both sides had previously viewed each other only through their gun sights. Now, I was among the first Israelis to ever meet an Egyptian in a noncombat situation. It was a transformative experience I will never forget. The frigid first meetings, even during breaks, when no one mingled, then the thaw, the first acts of kindness and jokes, finally a friendly working relationship. The thought of an end to the peace with Egypt is a nightmare. Been there, done that.

Chuck Freilich is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and was a deputy national-security adviser in Israel. He is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, 2012.

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All of Your Egypt Questions Answered

Well, not all your Egypt questions, but at least a few. Here goes:

Q: Which side should I be rooting for in the current conflict?

A: Your choice is between the theocratic, fascist church-burners of the Muslim Brotherhood or the authoritarian, coup-plotting civilian-killers of the Egyptian military. These are the only two parties that matter in the conflict. It would be something of a cop-out, though an understandable one, to declare yourself a partisan of the mass of innocent Egyptians caught in the crossfire. Here’s a provisional, realpolitik solution to your problem: The Egyptian military has a better chance of preventing all-out civil war than does the Brotherhood. Best that it does this without mass slaughter, of course.

Q: Wait a minute, though. Continued rule by the Egyptian armed forces, and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood by same, will only lead to the creation of a new generation of Islamist terrorists, won’t it?

A: Why yes, in all likelihood, it will. In 1966, Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the maximum ruler of Egypt, had the Muslim Brotherhood theologian Sayyid Qutb hanged. This hanging didn’t end Qutb’s influence. Quite the opposite: He became, posthumously, an important spiritual father to al-Qaeda. The military strongmen who have ruled Egypt for the past 60 years or so consistently believed that they could suppress Islamist extremism by force, and they have failed. (Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, died at the hands of Islamists.) There’s no reason to believe that the current Egyptian rulers will extirpate Islamism either, no matter how many people they kill.

Q: So how do we get the generals to stop killing Muslim Brotherhood members, and convince them to marginalize Islamists in more nuanced ways?

A: Chuck Hagel, the U.S. secretary of defense, called General Abdelfatah al-Seesi, the leader of the Egyptian junta, 17 times in the days leading up to the army’s violent suppression of Brotherhood demonstrators. These calls failed to persuade al-Seesi to moderate his stance. I’m convinced that an 18th call would have worked, however.

Q: You’re joking, right?

A: Yes. What Barack Obama’s administration has failed to understand is that the Egyptian military thinks it’s the only institution keeping the country from spiraling into a calamitous period of instability. A series of stern phone calls wasn’t going to convince the junta that its analysis of the situation was mistaken. As Eric Trager, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains, the military was actually quite willing to make an accommodation with the Brotherhood, in which the now-overthrown government of Mohamed Mursi would control the domestic sphere while the military maintained control over defense and its economic holdings. “The problem,” Trager says, is that the Brotherhood “so mismanaged the domestic political sphere through its non-inclusiveness that it created a mass movement against it that called on the military to act. And the military feared, I think, that siding with the Muslim Brotherhood was a bad political bet and a recipe for instability that would ultimately threaten its economic interests.”

Q: So what can the U.S. do to persuade the military to carve out a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, so that it doesn’t go underground and become further radicalized?

A: Obama administration officials can go back in time, to the beginning of Mursi’s reign, and persuade him to include opposition figures in his cabinet, and to think of himself as the leader of all Egyptians, not merely of the Islamists. Open-minded leadership would have shown Egypt’s liberals that the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t intending to grab absolute power. Disaffected liberals ultimately forced the military’s hand, egging on the generals to initiate what amounted to a coup against Mursi last month. There’s no guarantee that this would have worked — the Muslim Brotherhood might very well have been impervious to pressure from the White House — but it would have been good for the administration to apply such pressure.

Q: What can the U.S. do today to make the situation better? Suspend its aid package to the Egyptian military?

A: I can’t think of a particularly good reason to keep the aid flowing. Two reasons to aid the Egyptian military have been to make sure Egypt maintains its peace treaty with Israel and to help Egypt fight terrorism. But the Egyptian military is uninterested in fighting with Israel, and it seems properly motivated (overly motivated, actually) to fight Islamist terrorists, real and imagined. It doesn’t need American aid to continue down the path it’s on. The other argument for continued aid is that it gives the U.S. leverage. The 17 fruitless phone calls from Hagel undermine that argument.

Q: Isn’t this conversation about cutting off American aid mostly meaningless, because the Egyptian military’s friends in the Arab world will more than make up the difference?

A: In many ways, this is true. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already promised billions in aid. Israel would probably promise aid, too, if this were to be socially acceptable in Cairo. Most U.S. allies in the Middle East are quite openly on the side of the military. That means the monarchs of the Arab world see the Muslim Brotherhood as a direct threat to their rule, and it means that Israel thinks the Egyptian military will be a better guarantor of peace — and a more effective guarantor of quiet in the Sinai Peninsula — than the Brotherhood.

Q: Are they right?

A: Yep.

Q: So what you’re saying is that the best possible outcome in Egypt would be for the military to handle the Brotherhood with finesse, rather than brutality?

A: The Brotherhood became wildly unpopular, mainly because of Mursi’s pigheaded mismanagement. His government was going to fall on its own. The military has breathed new life into Islamist radicalism in Egypt by prematurely and violently intervening in what could have been a natural process.

Q: Why is the army so klutzy?

A: Who knows? I do know that Hosni Mubarak, until late in his reign, handled this issue with more finesse than his proteges.

Q: Speaking of which, is Mubarak actually getting out of jail? If he does, what’s he going to do?

A: Sources tell me he’s heading to Iowa, to test the waters.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. 

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The Islamic Insurgency That Could Soon Hit Egypt

Eric Trager

New Republic, August 19, 2013

By disorganizing Egypt’s most cohesive Islamist group, the generals have turned hundreds of thousands of deeply ideological Muslim Brothers into free radicals who may no longer listen to their typically cautious leaders.

Shortly after the uprising-cum-coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi on July 3, I asked an Egyptian military official why the generals removed Morsi after only four days of protests when they had waited 18 days to remove Hosni Mubarak in 2011. “The previous military leadership was reactive,” he replied, referring to the junta that ruled Egypt for the 16 months following Mubarak’s ouster. “But this leadership wanted to be proactive.”

To some extent, this contrast reflects the age difference between the septuagenarian generals who sacked Mubarak — many of whom were subsequently sacked by Morsi — and the younger brass that now effectively rules Egypt. But it also reflects the current regime’s determination not to repeat what it views as its predecessor’s mistakes. Whereas the previous military council was overwhelmed by post-revolutionary political trends, this military leadership intends to set the political agenda. The old generals responded to mass protests, dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood and saw it win elections. The new generals instead called protests against the “terrorist” Brotherhood and, after resisting international pressure for negotiations, attacked and defeated it.

Indeed, if the remarkably low attendance at yesterday’s Brotherhood protests is any guide, the generals are succeeding in demoralizing and defeating the Brotherhood. Of course, given the many hundreds of Morsi supporters who have been killed and the deepening resentments among Egypt’s Islamist masses, the military’s victory may prove to be pyrrhic. But with public support firmly on their side, the generals have quelled the Brotherhood at least for the time being due to two key decisions: They struck first — remember, these generals are “proactive” — and focused on a strategy of decapitation, in which top Brotherhood leaders have been targeted for arrest.

The generals have thus demonstrated that they understand the Brotherhood’s vulnerabilities, since the Brotherhood cannot function effectively once its top leaders have been apprehended. After all, the Brotherhood is at its core a hierarchical vanguard, in which legions of fully indoctrinated cadres are organized under a nationwide, pyramidal chain-of-command. Specifically, decisions are voted on by a 120-member consultative (shura) council and executed by the 18-member Guidance Office, which passes directives to its deputies in each regional sector (qita’), who call their deputies in each province (muhafaza), who call their deputies in each subsidiary area (muntaqa), who call their deputies in each narrower populace (sho’aba), who finally communicate the order to the chiefs of each family (usra), which is essentially a five-to-eight-member cell.

Far from being arcane bureaucratic trivia, the hierarchical process through which the Brotherhood makes decisions is an integral part of what it means to be a Muslim Brother. All Muslim Brothers take an Islamic oath (baya) to “listen and obey” decisions reached through shura, and they firmly believe that any decision taken through the organization’s codified processes will advance its long-term Islamizing agenda. For this reason, Muslim Brothers even follow those commands with which they may individually disagree. For example, although many Muslim Brothers opposed the organization’s decision to run a presidential candidate, they nonetheless followed the Brotherhood’s command to campaign for Morsi in the 2012 presidential elections.

Disrupting this chain-of-command is thus vital to destroying the organization, which is why the military has pursued its decapitation strategy since the night it toppled Morsi, when security forces arrested top Brotherhood leaders and issued warrants for hundreds of others. The apparent goal was to capture Guidance Office and shura council leaders. But this strategy did not immediately work. Many of these leaders found safe haven at the Brotherhood’s Rabaa al-Adawiya protest site in northern Cairo, where armed men reportedly protected them and allowed them to continue making decisions for the organization. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood authorized its provincial leaders to make decisions beyond Cairo, thereby insulating the organization in case its top leaders were apprehended.

Last Wednesday’s deadly crackdown, however, in which hundreds of Morsi supporters were killed, forced top leaders into less secure hiding, and many have since been arrested. Then on Sunday, the military-backed government began targeting provincial Brotherhood leaders, raiding 34 leaders’ homes in Alexandria, four in Sohag, and eight in Gharbiya. This campaign will likely extend to all governorates, forcing these leaders into hiding and thereby further disrupting the Brotherhood’s organization. Even if decision-making powers now fall to leaders in each subsidiary Brotherhood “area” and thereby preserve the group’s local organizing capabilities, it is now a substantially weaker entity. The Brotherhood’s “area” leaders are far less experienced in making strategic decisions, and it will be extremely difficult for them to formulate a cohesive nationwide strategy given their wide distribution across Egypt.

Still, the military’s decapitation of the Brotherhood is a double-edged sword. By removing the top layers of the organization, the military has made it impossible for the Brotherhood to execute a change in strategy. The military thus has no way of compelling the Brotherhood to abandon its disruptive protests and instead re-enter the political process, as the military says is its goal, because all of the top and provincial leaders who could command their cadres to change course are being removed from the scene.

Even worse, by disorganizing Egypt’s most cohesive Islamist group, the generals have turned hundreds of thousands of deeply ideological Muslim Brothers into free radicals, who will no longer listen to their typically cautious leaders. Many younger Muslim Brothers, in particular, lean towards Salafism, and their upbringing in the Brotherhood — whose motto concludes with the phrase “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations” — has made them willing to die for Islamism, and possibly willing to fight for it as well.

In other words, while the military has seemingly won its battle with the Muslim Brotherhood, its prize may be an undisciplined Islamist insurgency.

Eric Trager is the Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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