The mess in Egypt: Restricting aid is a mistake

Richard W. Carlson (Ambassador to the Seychelles, 1991-1992)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Carlson’s October 26, 2013 op-ed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are seriously mishandling the U.S. relationship with Egypt. By cutting off much of the $1.5 billion military assistance package, they are further spreading instability and uncertainty and guaranteeing more chaos in Egypt.

John Kerry, known as Lt. Clueless by many on Capitol Hill, believes that the denial of hundreds of millions of dollars in promised military aid “will pressure” Egypt into becoming more democratic. He knows this because in just nine months Kerry has become one of our greatest secretaries of State, at least according to the sclerotic Joe Biden.

Kerry is right about the pressure and wrong about the results. The United States is squeezing Egypt at a very bad time.

One wonders what they are really thinking at Obama HQ. Could they be this far off base? Do they have an undisclosed motive?

Only a bit more than 13 million Egyptians voted for Mohamed Morsi for president two years ago. Less than a year later, 22 million voters signed petitions demanding his resignation. When 40 million people took to the streets this summer calling for Morsi’s ouster — ponder the size of those crowds — the military stayed on the sidelines.

Bloodshed began only after radical Islamists, leftists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters began firing weapons and the police and the military finally clashed with them.

The Egyptian economy is in crisis. Unemployment is skyrocketing. So is street crime and violence. Per capita income is about $6,500 in a country of 79 million. Inflation is at 11 percent. Tourism, upon which the economy is dependent, is way down. (Would you spend money on a trip to Cairo these days? Could you afford bodyguards?)

My friend Bill Cowan, a retired Marine officer, legendary in the world of Special Forces operations, had lunch with me this month. He had just returned from Egypt.

Bill has been in and out of the Middle East for decades and for the last couple of years has visited Iraq and the region almost every month. He knows of what he speaks. In Egypt he met with Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the impressive soldier and his senior officers now running the military and security for the country. Bill also met with the leader of the Christian Coptic Church, with students, businessmen and former demonstrators against both Hosni Mubarak and Morsi.

Mubarak, a former president, is 85 and under house arrest in a hospital. He is currently being tried in Cairo, charged with the killing of demonstrators back a few years ago when he was overthrown.

Morsi also is under house arrest and will soon be tried on a similar charge of killing demonstrators. (Mubarak was tried and convicted for killings last year but the verdict was overturned on appeal.) The country is a mess and very shaky.

I spoke with Mubarak once when he was Egypt’s president. It was in the fall of 1990. I was running the Voice of America and the Persian Gulf War was on. One morning, David Rockefeller, who ran Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, called my office. He asked if I would meet him at a downtown Washington hotel. When I entered his suite, he was with a mutual friend, Ambassador Joseph Reed, then U.S. chief of protocol. Rockefeller asked me if I would speak with Mubarak, who had called his friend Rockefeller to gripe that the VOA wasn’t being aggressive enough in its support of U.S. and coalition troops. Mubarak was on the phone, he said. I took the phone and listened to his complaints.

In response, I agreed that we were all on the same side and I would look into his concerns. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was in the room with Mubarak at the time and shared Mubarak’s view that the VOA was being too neutral and not supportive enough. He sounded very irritated.

These were typical of complaints against the VOA by government folks who wanted us to cheerlead with the news, not just report it. Later, I read all the VOA scripts in question. They were fair. In a war “fair” has few supporters.

At lunch last week, Bill Cowan said to me and then later wrote in a commentary for The Daily Caller:

“My Muslim friends from throughout the region are under no illusions about who the Muslim Brotherhood is and the threat they pose to that region and ultimately us. Neither are the 40 million Egyptians who went to the streets of Egypt on July 26th to voice their support for the generals who ousted Morsy.

“It would be refreshing for the Obama administration to consider these demonstrations a reflection of democracy and restore full military aid to Egypt. It’s not only in Egypt’s best interest. It’s in ours and Israel’s as well.”

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