Whose side are you on anyway?


It’s not always easy to figure out whether the US is with you or against you.

In New York, the plate of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was filled beyond the brim. In his five days in the Big Apple, Al-Sisi gave a speech at the UN climate summit, then delivered an address at the UN General Assembly’s 69th session.

Al-Sisi met around 40 luminaries past and present. The who’s who included Ban Ki-Moon, David Cameron, Francois Hollande, Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. He also met American business people, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, several members of Congress, and was interviewed on CBS.

But without doubt, the high point of Al-Sisi’s visit was his meeting with President Barack Obama, the first between the two. It was an opportunity to assess where the relationship stands following a dramatic reorientation, resultant from Egypt’s domestic convulsions and an American response that at times confuses more than clarifies.

Egypt has been among the largest beneficiaries of US military and economic aid for decades pursuant to a 1979 peace treaty with Washington’s closest ally Israel. But relations between the US and Egypt have wavered since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as president. Mubarak had been friends with Washington throughout his 30 year-tenure but when he was turned on by his own people, the US, too, joined the rebellion.

It was then Mohamed Morsi’s turn to get America’s endorsement, after which its thumbs down. It was during Morsi’s time that the dissemination of conspiracy theories started to abound: the US assisted the Muslim Brotherhood in reaching power; the US wanted Morsi and the Islamists to go. The Muslim Brotherhood claims the US supported Morsi’s ouster. Those opposed to the Brotherhood claim Washington has been and still is supporting the Islamists. This this-way, that-way US position is the prevalent assumption in much of Egyptian political discourse.

There seems to be something of a disconnect between who Egyptians think America is supporting, and who America actually is supporting. The fact is that not even the US can say with any certainty who it is rooting for.In Obama’s UN speech at this time last year, two months after Morsi was ousted,  Obama had some harsh words for the defunct Morsi government: that it wasn’t inclusive, didn’t respect the views of all Egyptians and that even though Morsi was democratically elected, he proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive.

But neither was Obama thrilled with the government that replaced Morsi, expressing concern over a prolonged crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathisers.

So which one is it? America has been attacked by both sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and at the same time engineering its removal from power. Who does America really support? Apparently, the US, like any nation seeking to above all protect its national interests, goes with what it needs at a particular time, and these days it needs Al-Sisi. It needs a strong Egypt in a region where neighbour Libya is in turmoil, Gaza is in ruins and the peace process in tatters, and Islamic State is rampaging in Iraq and Syria. These are anxious times for the US and as such, it is turning to Egypt to fulfil its familiar regional role as a moderating and influential force.

Washington also wants to support a leader who enjoys the support of his people. By the time Mubarak had reached the finish line and even before Morsi could get out of the starting gate, the Egyptian public had gone sour on both and consequently overthrew the two after massive nationwide protests. As for their successor, the US has said that its overriding interest throughout these past few years has been to encourage a government that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people, and that would be the government of President Al-Sisi. The United States chose to support those who called for change, and that too would be embodied in the Al-Sisi government which responded to the desire of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution of 2011 had taken a wrong turn and that a corrective revolution was in order.

Which is why in January, the US Congress passed a bill resuming aid it had suspended in October last year, pending what it described as progress in democracy and human rights. And last week, the US promised the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters in support of Egypt’s counter terrorism efforts.

In the middle of his conversation with Al-Sisi, who was trying to explain why Egyptians revolted against the extremism that wanted to break the unity of the nation, Obama raised the fate of the three jailed Al-Jazeera reporters in Egypt. The reporters were found guilty of cooperating with the Brotherhood, now officially labelled a terrorist organisation. But by merely bringing up the subject, Obama is implying not so indirectly that Al-Sisi can free them, that Egypt has no independent judiciary and that the president of a Third World country is above the law and can do as he pleases.

Al-Sisi is not above the law. The judiciary is independent, in full accordance with the principle of separation of powers. This is guaranteed by the constitution.

Obama is not a judge, nor are his aides a jury, nor is the White House a court of law. This is exactly what Obama constantly rails against – unconstitutional, undemocratic, autocratic governments. Egypt is in the process of shedding that image. Why would Obama want anything less from an ally?

Must be some more of that famous American ambiguity.

George W Bush’s calling card was “you’re either with us or against us”. One could always wonder which side lays the United States.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.