US trapped in dilemma of autocracy or theocracy

By Niu Song Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-1 22:43:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Since the Arab Spring, the twists and turns of Egypt's political situation have made relations between the US and Egypt highly variable.

Recently, Egypt's military government rejected the White House's pick of Robert Ford, currently the US ambassador to Syria, for its ambassador to Egypt, which signals the worsening ties between the two.

Egypt believed the proposed US envoy to Cairo played a critical role in fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More importantly, Egypt's stance shows the contradictions within the Egypt policy of the US and the complexities of Egypt's situation.

In US Middle East policy, both past and present, Egypt has had a significant position.

As WWII raged, the leaders of the Allies met several times to build the postwar international order, and one of the meetings was in Cairo.

From a geopolitical perspective, Egypt links Asia and Africa on the land, and the Suez Canal connects the West and the East. In 1978, the US helped negotiate a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt at Camp David.

Historically, Egypt has been taking the lead in the Arab world. After the Cold War ended, the US actively supported the Saudi Arabia-led Gulf monarchies as its new Middle East strategic pillar, but the importance of Egypt has not been neglected.

Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has experienced constant disturbances. The US hopes to get effectively involved in the political situation of Egypt. The political split and endless chaos are no good for the Middle East strategy of the US.

The dilemma for US' Egypt strategy is that on the one hand, it doesn't want the military to arrogate all powers to itself and suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has already taken part in the democratization process, as this goes against the democratic principles of the US. On the other hand, the US is suspicious about the Muslim Brotherhood out of fear that it will establish a theocracy under the disguise of democracy.

The ideal state of Egypt in the eyes of the US is one where secular forces and moderate Islamic groups compete fairly within the framework of democracy. Entangled between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the US has offered limited support while having endless mistrust toward both. Obviously, the US lacks a clear strategy toward post-revolution Egypt.

Meanwhile, the complexities of the political situation in Egypt are that the secular forces represented by the military only hope to make the revolution a tool by which they could redistribute internal power and interests to benefit themselves. That the "alien" Muslim Brotherhood took the power is nothing but a political trick used by the military forces to retreat for the sake of advancing. They mistrust the Muslim Brotherhood from a religious perspective. The mistrust has even been reinforced by some policies adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood.

When the military forces couldn't tolerate it anymore, they ousted the elected president by making use of US suspicion toward the Muslim Brotherhood. They also branded it a terrorist group, which has generated more concern from the US.

In a leaflet I got from an Egyptian protester who demonstrated before the White House, it said, "The Egyptian dream of democracy and rule of law came to a nightmarish disruption and then an end on July 3, 2013 with a military coup led by the general appointed as leader of the Egyptian military forces."

Despite discrepancies between Egypt and the US over the issue of the nomination, the two have shown restraint. A US that thinks it can work with the military will be favorable to Egypt. In the face of a choice between secular autocratic forces and extreme religious groups, the US has no alternative but to shelve democracy and appease the former.

The author is an associate professor at the Shanghai International Studies University and postdoctoral fellow of Berkley Center at Georgetown University.

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