Obama Finds Cairo an Almost Impossible Problem

“There is something tragic about the uncomfortable position, in which the Obama administration now finds itself,” writes Paul Brill in his weekly de Volkskrant column.

What was it again that Franklin Roosevelt said about Anastasio Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua?

“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Barack Obama seems to me too polished a performer to utter such words, but the way he is dealing with the crisis in Egypt does resemble the approach that Roosevelt took with Somoza.

Of course the president has condemned the brutal violence that the army used in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, and a joint military exercise between the U.S. and Egypt did get canceled. However, the White House is reluctant to completely disown General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, thereby cutting all links to the Egyptian army. Egypt is too important a power in the Middle East, and the army’s role too important.

There is something tragic about the uncomfortable position in which the Obama administration now finds itself. What a difference, when compared to the aspirations displayed during the first months of 2009. There was going to be a new approach to the Middle East, certainly when compared to the presidency of George W. Bush. American- Arab relationships were going to be run along different lines. The president traveled to Cairo to personally demonstrate his determination to approach the Arab world in a new, more positive way.


Reality, however, has proved to be a stubborn opponent. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have seen two dictatorships overthrown, but subsequently, half the Arab world has been thrown into turmoil. A possible Iranian nuclear weapon continues to hang over the region like the sword of Damocles. The Palestinian question is no closer to being resolved, and meanwhile, the civil war in Syria is sending shockwaves through Lebanon and Iraq. Anti-American feeling in the Middle East is stronger than ever, and once again, Americans are discovering that they get blamed almost automatically when things go wrong. This applies equally when they decide to intervene and when they choose not to, “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

During all this turmoil, the Obama administration has not always played the best possible hand. I do not understand for example, why in the past few months, Secretary of State John Kerry has been putting so much energy into a resumption of the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It is not that serious talks would not be very welcome, but the chance of a breakthrough is tiny, and at the moment, there are much more acute conflicts and dangers in the region that ought to be higher up the list of diplomatic priorities. More generally, one has to conclude that the U.S. is lacking a clear strategy, which means that Washington is constantly being caught off guard by new developments and then struggles desperately to get a grip on them.

However, I would immediately like to add that seldom in the past has it been any better, and there is a simple reason for this: Despite all its political and military power, the U.S. cannot always get everything it wants, especially in the Middle East.

Countries like Israel and Egypt determine their own political limits, and although they are dependent on U.S. military aid and intelligence, they are also well-aware that they have a strategic significance. The U.S. does have genuine influence, but only in the imagination of committed ideologues and conspiracy theorists is this influence limitless.

Six Decades

When assessing the situation in Egypt, one needs to bear in mind that the discord between the Islamists and the army is nothing new. Yes, the scale of last week’s bloodbath is unprecedented, at least in Egypt, but the confrontation has being going on for at least six decades and has included a number of depressing episodes, such as the attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the successful assassination of Anwar Sadat.

What was striking over the past two years was that there seemed to be a period of détente. The army accepted Mohammed Morsi’s election victory and agreed to a change in the leadership of the military — note that Sisi was appointed by Morsi. In truth however, the spirit of democracy has never really taken hold, neither with the Muslim Brotherhood, nor the Mubarak regime — both have paid lip service to democracy, while actually using it simply as an instrument to garner as much power as possible.

This is the greatest tragedy in Egypt. The main players are lacking any real democratic zeal. It is about power, and for it, it is worth murdering and being martyred.

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