Barack Obama, “lackey” of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

As a correspondent for the New York Times in Cairo since 2010, David Kirkpatrick covered the Egyptian Spring and Winter and the account in his new book of the different episodes, the various twists and turns, displays considerable talent. If only for this reason, his book is well worth reading, besides which it enables the reader to follow the seesaw policies of the White-House faced with the shockwave that struck one of its principal allies in the region.

Collage Lincoln Agnew

Barack Obama’s administration was divided over the unexpected upheaval that threatened the regional status quo, starting in the winter of 2011-2012. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favoured supporting President Hosni Mubarak to the bitter end, whereas Obama, almost alone among the members of his cabinet, thought otherwise. However, over and beyond these differences of opinion, all agreed that what mattered most was the defence of American interests, that the issue of democracy was not a priority. As a senior State Department official explained to the author : “First you lean into the idea of Mubarak leading a transition. When that doesn’t work, you lean into Omar Suleiman1, and when that idea goes down, too, you think, ‘Okay, let’s work with the SCAF2.” The goal was to maintain good relations with the authorities and especially with the Egyptian army, the guarantor of peace with Israel.

What did the U.S. government think of the Muslim Brotherhood? In the spring of 2011, the State Department had no contact with anyone inside what was soon to become the most influential political force in Egypt! As one member of the National Security Council told the author: “We didn’t know anything! Advisers to Clinton at the State Department and staff on the Egypt desk at the National Security Council drafted a cable formally instructing the embassy in Cairo to reach out to the Muslim Brothers.” But it was over a month before the diplomats complied.”

The first contacts were rather fruitless and many American policy-makers, high-ranking military and intelligence officers feared the election of Mohamed Morsi. The run-off in June 2012 gave rise to violent debates behind the scenes, all the more so as the very influential Saudi and Emirati lobbies in Washington wanted his opponent, Ahmed Chafik to win. “Many in the American military and intelligence agencies dreaded the prospect of an Islamist president of Egypt, too,” Kirkpatrick writes. “But given the generals’ [poor] performance so far, a rigged Shafik victory seemed to guarantee only continued chaos.” And he quotes Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest advisers, who attended the meeting of the National Security Council: “You could tell a lot of the people in the room were sympathetic to the Shafik play. But even those people just could not sustain knowing that the other guy [Morsi] won a free election and we were acting against it.”

Washington’s gamble—or at least that of the White House—was twofold : first that the Muslim Botherhood, the most powerful and best organised Egyptian political party, could undertake the economic reforms necessary to stabilise the country again; and secondly that Morsi’s de facto support of the Israeli-Egyptian agreement would strengthen American influence in the region. The second gamble paid off, the first did not. A full-scale test came in November 2012 after the Israeli offensive against Gaza and Hamas. Obama contacted Morsi personally and the latter promised to bring Hamas to the negotiating table. Ben Rhodes recalled the episode: “The cease-fire talks had been going nowhere before Morsi stepped in. And he delivered. He kept his end of the bargain. He surprised even the sceptics.” And Steven Simon of the National Security Council told Kirkpatrick: “It was a litmus test for Morsi, and he passed with flying colours. He was indispensable.” The reward was not long in coming, Hillary Clinton went to Cairo in person to announce the cease-fire agreement and to thank Morsi, “for assuming the leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” And when Morsi’s foreign affairs adviser, Essam El-Haddad went to Washington a few weeks later, he was surprised to obtain an impromptu meeting with President Obama himself. These events had two consequences: they fuelled a campaign in Egypt denouncing Obama’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and convinced Morsi that the support of the American administration would prevent the Army from taking action against him: ensuing events would show how wrong he was.

For in addition to his personal incompetence, mistakes and partisan politics, Morsi and his government came up against a well-organised regional campaign, taken up by influential circles within the American administration. “By April 2013, the Emirati-based satellite network Sky News Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, and other Emirati-linked Egyptian media were all railing against a supposed American plot to bring the Brotherhood to power, with Ambassador Patterson as its ringleader. The Gulf-based satellite networks were full of accusations that she was a Brotherhood ‘lackey,’ ‘an old hag,’ or an ogre. They claimed that she had pressured the Egyptian government to rig the election.” All of which was said to be a “great conspiracy” in favour of. . . Israel! As Rhodes put it “Allies of the United States funded a denigration campaign against the United States ambassador in a country that is one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance, to overturn the democratically elected government of that country.”

However, that campaign would have been less effective had it not had influential support from Washington, fuelled by the activities of the Saudi and Emirati embassies. Many high-ranking Pentagon officials made no bones about their hatred of everything Muslim. General James Mattis, Chief of Central Command, responsible for all operations in the Middle East, Central and South-East Asia (he would be appointed Secretary of Defense under Donald Trump) believed that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaida belonged to the same movement. And Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, called Islam a “cancer” and was in close touch with General Abdel Fattah Sisi, who at that time was only Minister of Defense. Flynn was fired by Obama in August 2014 and would be briefly Trump’s national security adviser. As Kirkpatrick points out: “The splits within the American government were becoming obvious to diplomats and soldiers around the region. Obama and part of the White House hoped Morsi would succeed; many in the Pentagon, like Mattis and Flynn, agreed with their Egyptian and Emirati counterparts that Morsi was a danger. The American schizophrenia was so open that Egyptian generals complained about it to their Pentagon contacts.” And realised that they could take action against the elected government without eliciting American reprisals.

In January 2013, Obama appointed Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator, his Secretary of Defense. Hagel went to Egypt with instructions to warn Sisi that a coup would put an end to American military aid. However, both because of his personal convictions and pressure from Saudi Arabia, Hagel did nothing of the sort, according to Kirkpatrick.

As early as the spring of 2013, all the U.S. intelligence agencies told Washington that a coup was in preparation, “But no one in the Pentagon, the State Department, or the White House told Sisi to stop moving. No one told Morsi that Sisi had turned against him, or that a coup had begun.” (And bizarrely enough, Morsi trusted his Defense Minister to the very end.)

On 3 July 2013, the Egyptian Army made its move and Morsi was jailed. The next day, Obama convened the National Security Council. To his advisers’ surprise, the President refused to describe the events in Egypt as a “coup” which would have caused ipso facto the suspension of American military aid. John Kerry, the Secretary of State since December 2012, agreed with him wholeheartedly. Later he explained that Sisi had heeded the will of the people and acted to save Egypt. The generals claimed to have removed Morsi from office to prevent an explosion and establish the rule of law. They pretended their road map would provide for new elections.

Israel played a considerable role in these choices, as Hagel explained to Kirkpatick: “The Israelis were telling me, ̔‘this is our security, and this is the best relationship we have ever had with the Egyptians̕, and they were working Capitol Hill, as they do.” Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, had tabled a draft law aimed at cutting off military aid to Egypt on account of the coup. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, wrote to every senator, arguing that “any cuts could increase instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally.” The Senate voted not to suspend military aid by 86 to 13.

This support from Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. confirmed the frailty and dependence of Sisi’s regime despite his nationalist blustering and diminished any influence Egypt might have had in finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. As Kirkpatrick points out: “On February 21, 2016, Secretary of State Kerry convened a secret summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Sisi, King Abdullah, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Part of Kerry’s agenda was a regional agreement for Egypt to guarantee Israel’s security as part of a deal for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu scoffed. What could Sisi offer Israel? Netanyahu asked, according to two Americans involved in the talks. Sisi depended on Israel to control his own territory, for his own survival. Sisi needed Netanyahu; Netanyahu did not need Sisi.” Netanyahu knew that the 3 July 2013 coup, far from ending “terrorism” had triggered an insurrection in the Sinai, led by a group that was to join up with the Islamic State Organization (ISO) in 2015; the Egyptian army has proven incapable of stamping it out and Israel has had to step in several times to help the Egyptian troops. Forgotten were Cairo’s nationalist rantings.

It took the massacre of nearly a thousand civilians at Rabaa in August 2013, for the United States to react. First by postponing planned Egyptian-American manoeuvres and then, in October, by suspending 1.3 billion dollars of military aid. But it was too late, all the more so as powerful voices were raised against these orientations. The Pentagon began referring to the presidential advisers as the “White House jihadi” or “the Muslim Brotherhood caucus.” Obama quickly restored the military aid. Washington had put paid to democracy in Egypt.

The book ultimately offers a rather unflattering portrait of a procrastinating President Obama, incapable of imposing his options on his own administration and who certainly did not himself regard democracy as a priority for US foreign policy. With serious consequences. As Mohamad Soltan, an Egyptian-American member of the Brotherhood, jailed by the junta before being deported to the USA, explained to the author: “the one thing that everybody in the prison had in common —the ISIS guys, the Muslim Brotherhood guys, the liberals, the guards, the officers — is that they all hate America.” One wonders why. . .

  • David D. Kirkpatrick, Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East
    Viking, August 2018. — 384 pages

1Chief of military intelligence, he had a brief tenure as vice-president, appointed by Mubarak on 29 January 2011.

2The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces governed the country during the period of transition until Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012.