How ‘power grab’ in Egypt aligns with US priorities in Arab world

Amid a U.S. shift to a more ‘realist’ stance in Arab world, Egyptian President Sisi’s ‘power grab’ seems hardly worthy of mention.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, April 9, in Washington.

Evan Vucci/AP

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the White House this month, he was given the treatment generally reserved for America’s closest allies.

Mr. Sisi stayed at Blair House, the guest house across from the White House and a perk reserved for most-honored guests.

In the Oval Office, President Donald Trump praised him unequivocally as a “great president” despite withering criticisms from human rights groups, democracy advocates, and some members of Congress that the Egyptian leader is overseeing a steep erosion of civil liberties and consolidating power in the image of other emerging authoritarian leaders.

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And when asked specifically how he views the effort engineered by Mr. Sisi to reverse many of the democratic gains won in Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution eight years ago – an effort culminating today, the final day in a three-day referendum that is all but certain to confirm the return of strongman rule to Egypt – Mr. Trump said he didn’t know about it.

What he did know, he added, is that Mr. Sisi is “doing a great job.”

In the referendum, which Human Rights Watch has said was being conducted in a “grossly unfree, rights-abusive environment,” Egyptians are voting on constitutional changes that would extend Mr. Sisi’s current term until 2024, allow him to run for another six-year term after that, strengthen his control over the judiciary, and enhance the military’s power.

Mr. Trump’s embrace of Mr. Sisi in the midst of what many analysts are calling a “power grab” is just one of a growing number of signs of the Trump administration’s disenchantment with policies of democracy promotion and increasing preference for authoritarian rule for stabilizing a volatile Middle East.

The shift from pro-democracy policies that reached their zenith under President George W. Bush – when removing Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad in 2003 was envisioned as the spark that would ignite democracy’s spread across the region – has been on display in various forms in recent weeks.

Support for Libya’s Haftar

The United States has shown little interest in and offered little public encouragement for the massive and largely youth-led demonstrations that over recent weeks have driven longtime autocratic rulers from power in Algeria and Sudan.

More pointedly, Mr. Trump displayed his preference for authoritarian rule as the answer for Arab countries when he issued a statement Friday endorsing the military campaign of Libyan militia leader and would-be strongman Khalifa Haftar in his efforts to defeat the country’s embattled United Nations-supported government.

Mr. Trump’s move not only shocked members of the international community working to help stabilize Libya and shore up its government, but it appeared to reverse U.S. policy that just days earlier had been to condemn the Haftar militia’s offensive, as laid out in a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“What we’re seeing from this administration is a harsh repudiation of the Bush 43 strategy [which was] really the apex of believing in the innate desire for democracy among broad populations and the idea that democracy’s spread would help fight extremism across the Middle East,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former State Department Middle East policy planner.

Protesters attend a demonstration to demand an end to Khalifa Haftar's offensive against Tripoli, Libya, in Martyrs' Square in central Tripoli April 19.
Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Moreover, the shift is a break with the longtime U.S. practice of putting its values front and center in its international policies, he adds.

“Incorporating an American values proposition has been consistently an element of our approach to international affairs since the Cold War, when we argued we were advancing the forces of freedom, and inconsistently since as far back as Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points 100 years ago,” Mr. Alterman says. “So now turning away sharply from an American values proposition is a strong departure from the way the U.S. has operated in the world for many many years. You could argue,” he adds, “this is the resurgence of realists.”

Limited influence

Indeed, “realism” is a big part of what some regional experts see in the shifting U.S. outlook on Egypt, a key Middle East ally the U.S. has turned to (and supported with billions of dollars in annual aid) to further regional stability.

“There is now a much more realistic appreciation of the limits of American and Western influence in sponsoring change across the region,” says James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

And recent U.S. experience with Egypt, he adds, has only confirmed how well-meaning but misguided policy does not produce the ends sought, such as democratic rule.

“The Obama administration’s push for a rapid democratic transition in Egypt empowered the Muslim Brotherhood, which quickly subverted democracy,” Mr. Phillips says. “Pushing for elections in places where there is a lack of economic freedom, press freedom, an independent judiciary, adequate protection for property rights, and respect for the rule of law does not result in stable democracies.”

If anything, “the overly optimistic initial reactions to the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests led to the NATO intervention in Libya, which produced only temporary stability,” he says. “Elsewhere, the ‘Arab Spring’ devolved into an ‘Islamist winter’ and triggered civil wars that still rage on in Syria and Yemen.”

Mr. Alterman sees a direct line between the “disgust with how Iraq has turned out” in the aftermath of US-engineered regime change and the lack of any protest from the current administration “with how Egypt has returned to authoritarian rule.”

It’s a perspective with which Mr. Phillips largely agrees. “After the overly ambitious U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he says, “the Trump administration has scaled back U.S. goals in the volatile Middle East region and reduced the U.S. military footprint.”

Taking a back seat

The U.S. pullback from Middle East engagement and shift away from values-led policies have opened the way to what Nicholas Heras of Washington’s Center for a New American Security (CNAS) calls a “new Middle East cold war” in which the U.S. takes a back seat to regional blocs.

“The U.S. and Western powers have learned often the hard way of the limited ability they have to impact change in the region,” says Mr. Heras, a fellow in CNAS’s Middle East Security Program. “And so there is a shift to an approach that will allow regional actors to sort out their region.”

Essentially two major blocs of countries are now battling in this “cold war” to reshape the region in their image, he says, with one bloc comprised mainly of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt and the other led by Turkey and Qatar. In addition, he says, Iran is involved as a third powerful actor outside the two main blocs.

In this scenario, Mr. Heras says, a U.S. discouraged by failed idealistic interventions and unending military engagements is motivated instead by stability in a key region for the global economy – and stability it now sees as best-served by authoritarian (and non-Islamist) rulers.

Instead of a dominant power intervening militarily and otherwise to change governments and enhance individual rights, the U.S. is likely to continue playing a more peripheral role that “recognizes the region will be shaped by the cold-war competition between regional blocs,” he says.

It’s not a recipe for significant change in the region.

The social and economic factors such as joblessness and stymied social mobility that led to the Arab Spring or that had a hand in the more recent upheavals in Sudan and Algeria may be as present today as ever. But for Mr. Heras, the regional dynamics and the new U.S. and Western approach to them “does not tend to bolster the agency of people in the region to shape the kind of society they will live in.”