When it comes to Egypt, take note of American actions, not words

Secretary of State John Kerry talks tough on mass death sentences in Egypt. But US actions signal a far different take on Egypt's authoritarian about-turn. 

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, left, deliver statements to members of the media at the State Department in Washington, April 29, 2014.

Imagine you know nothing about Egypt and US policy towards it. Then consider the following chain of events.

Since the late 1970s the US government has been Egypt's chief benefactor, providing about $60 billion in military and economic aid. This was a reward for President Anwar Sadat's peace accord with Israel and a subsequent quid pro quo for Egypt keeping the peace, as well as for allowing US warships to pass through the Suez Canal and sharing intelligence with US agencies. 

A change of tack came after Sept. 11, 2001: The Bush administration began leaning on Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, to democratize. The neocons around Bush reckoned that "democratization" was an answer to the world's ills, and started to hint that the gravy train would derail unless Mr. Mubarak began moving in that direction.

This US pressure declined after Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood polled well in the first round of 2006 parliamentary elections (fraud in later rounds tipped the scale back to the ruling party.) But the rhetoric of democracy promotion carried on, and ramped up again under the Obama administration.

Then came Egypt's 2011 uprising that unseated Mubarak. Egypt's military took charge and promised to be a caretaker administrator while democracy was finally rolled out in the Arab world's largest country. US government money poured in via democracy promotion groups like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

The Obama administration has said since that nothing but democracy in Egypt would do.

So you'd be betting, from a place of ignorance, that if Egypt were to backslide on democracy, the US would get tough, sharply curtail aid, and insist on seeing-is-believing "democratization."

In fact, Egypt has rowed in the opposite direction for the last three years. And the US has, for the most part, bleated helplessly.

In 2012 the country put American and Egyptian staffers of US-funded NGOs on trial for their activities, and convicted many of them to lengthy jail terms. Among them were Sam LaHood, son of former Obama transportation secretary Ray LaHood, who received a five-year jail term in absentia after the US embassy helped him to skip town. 

The Obama administration reaction? Grumbling and unhappiness, but the money kept on flowing. Then a few weeks after the sentencing, at the beginning of July, Egypt's military carried out a coup (with substantial popular backing) against elected President Mohamed Morsi. 

The US response was to bend over backwards not to call a coup a "coup" – or else complicate ongoing funding to the Egyptian military. 

What's happened since? If you think that democracy is the answer to Egypt's problems, nothing good. And if you're a member of the Obama administration, like Secretary of State John Kerry, it has been embarrassing.

The US government claims that Egypt is "democratizing," even as the military strengthens in grip on politics life, censorship of the press is at least as bad as it was under Mubarak, and thousands of peaceful protesters – many but not all supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – are locked up. 

On Tuesday, Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy was in Washington. Ahead of their meeting, Mr. Kerry described Egypt's military-backed new Constitution as a "positive step," while calling the mass death sentence of 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters on Monday a "disturbing" decision.

That's one word for it. But note the timing: The US relaxed a partial freeze on military aid to Egypt late last week, with a promise of delivery of Apache attack helicopters and about $600 million to the generals. Monday's death sentence – which followed a mass death sentence of 529 Brotherhood supporters in March – came just days after the funds were released. The earlier mass sentence was connected to the death of a single police officer last August in rioting that followed a massacre of Brotherhood followers. 

What's going on here? What's been going on, more or less, for over 30 years. Security cooperation and the peace deal with Israel are trump cards in Washington, whichever party is in power there, and talk about democracy is just that. Egypt's current military leadership and their president-in-waiting, recently retired Field Marshall Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, are betting that Obama is no more wedded to his democracy agenda than either Bush or Bill Clinton before him.

And so far, they've been right. American words on this issue haven't mattered historically. They haven't really mattered in the past few years, amid historic upheaval. And until US priorities change, it's a safe bet they won't matter much going forward.

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