Objective evaluation of the recent visit by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Egypt suggests a possible softening of the critical tone which, up until now, the U.S. has used with the Egyptian military. Factors that support this understanding of Clinton’s message include:
1- In contrast with previously stated U.S. positions making U.S. aid to Egypt’s military contingent on the military transferring political power to civilians, in her weekend visit to Egypt, Clinton did not announce any preconditions for U.S. aid.
2- The U.S. Secretary of State called on all political parties to work cooperatively to achieve a durable democracy; she refrained from blaming the Egyptian military for any delay in reaching political stability in Egypt.
4- Clinton did not set any timeline for the military to surrender power to civilian authorities.
5- Finally, Clinton did ask the SCAF to return to a “pure national security role” instead of recommending that they return to their “barracks,” a phrase that was often used during the revolution. This would imply that the military could intervene in any political affairs of the country that might negatively affect “national security,” while the latter expression would suggest abstaining from any active involvement in political affairs.
“Real democracy means that no group or faction or leader can impose their will, their ideology, their religion, their desires on anyone else.” – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Alexandria, Egypt, July 15, 2012
It seems that the SCAF got the message. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi did not waste any time in taking a tough line with the Muslim Brotherhood. On Sunday, only hours after Clinton’s remarks, Tantawi warned the Islamists that he would not allow them to dominate the country.
This understanding of Secretary Clinton’s message also fits comfortably with statements in the New York Times that U.S. officials are experiencing a growing mistrust of Islamists.
“Every bone in the body of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is going to feel more comfortable with the idea that there is still a strong military looking over these guys and looking out for U.S. interests in Egypt and the region.” – Peter Mandaville, Director, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University and former State Department adviser on Islamist politics
At the same time, it appears as if Clinton’s message may have been misunderstood – whether intentionally or unintentionally – by many Egyptians, particularly by the Islamists. Comments on Egyptian television and in social media indicate an overwhelming perception that the U.S. is actually pressuring the SCAF and supporting the Brotherhood over the military.
It did not help matters that the BBC reported Secretary Clinton as saying she would make clear to Tantawi that the U.S. supports the return of the armed forced “to a purely military role,” not the phrase ‘pure national security role’. The difference between the two phrases is huge, as the former expression implies that the military’s role would be limited to guarding the borders of the country, while the latter would suggest that the military have the final say in political matters pertaining to national security.
It did not take much time for President Mohamed Morsi to take advantage of this “pseudo” victory against the military. Sunday, Morsi is reported to have ratified a law on standards for electing the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly charged with drafting a new constitution, thus protecting it from being dissolved.
This has its parallel in the “misunderstanding” of remarks by U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson during Independence Day celebrations at the U.S. Embassy on July 4, when she stated, “the return of a democratically-elected parliament, following a process decided by Egyptians, will also be an important move forward.” Islamists understood the diplomat’s message to mean the U.S. wanted to see ‘the’ former [Islamist-dominated] parliament and not just ‘a’ democratically-elected Parliament.
A misunderstanding of the U.S. message to Cairo could lead to further tensions and political instability in Egypt. If a misinterpretation of Clinton’s message encouraged Morsi to attempt to reverse the ruling of the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the parliament, there is the risk that it could embolden the Brotherhood and its supporters to rise up against the military, leading the country to further bloodshed. It is therefore important that the U.S. administration clarifies its statement and outlines in no uncertain terms what role Washington envisions both the SCAF and the Islamists should play in the future Egypt.
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Dr. Tawfik Hamid is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He is currently a Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.