Hill Briefing Demonstrates Complexity of US-Egypt Relationship

This post was originally published on July 25, 2013 on AAI’s newsblog. Full video of the event can also be found at that link.  

On Wednesday, July 24 the Arab American Institute hosted a Congressional briefing in Rayburn House Office Building titled, “Egypt: U.S. Policy Options Going Forward.” The briefing coincided with AAI President Jim Zogby’s release of new polling data by Zogby Analytics which surveyed American attitudes toward Egypt following the events surrounding June 30th in Egypt. These were compared with two decades of Zogby polling data regarding American attitudes toward Egypt, and discussed in the context of the most comprehensive poll conducted on Egypt, released just two weeks before the Tamarrod protests of June 30th. The event was attended by Congressional staff, media outlets and community members; the briefing was standing-room only, at full capacity.

Dr. Zogby was joined by a distinguished panel to discuss the poll, who engaged in a conversation with attendees about potential options for U.S. policy toward Egypt moving forward. The panelists included:

  • Geneive Abdo, Middle East/Southwest Asia Fellow at The Stimson Center; Author of three books, including “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam”
  • Steven Clemons, Washington editor-at-large of The Atlantic and Senior Fellow, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation
  • Michael Hanna, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation

In his opening remarks, Dr. Zogby emphasized a steady decline in American favorability toward Egypt, citing a lack of understanding about Egypt by the general public as a contributing factor. He argued that, though this was true when polling began more than two decades ago, Americans remain woefully uninformed about contemporary Egyptian society. This confusion extends to our policy there as well, thus, Dr. Zogby encouraged U.S. policymakers to clearly articulate what they perceive our values and strategic interests in the region to be, both to the American public and the Egyptian people.

The panelists presented a wide range of opinions both about how to interpret recent unrest in Egypt, and how American policymakers should respond. Both Stephen Clemons and Geneive Abdo explicitly described Morsi’s ousting as a “coup,” whereas Michael Hanna argued that the observable decline in the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy amongst the people of Egypt, corroborated by high turnout in the streets on June 30th, affirmed that the events could be regarded as both a popular uprising and a military coup. All the panelists were in agreement that the recent events are part of a much longer process, which will continue to evolve over an extended period.

The issue of U.S. aid to Egypt brought about the sharpest differences of opinion amongst panelists. Abdo reminded the audience that many Egyptians have been calling for an end to U.S. aid of any kind for years, and that the support the United States gives has recently paled in comparison to the support provided by certain countries in the Gulf. She did, however, suggest that we should consider temporarily suspending aid because she regards the events as a military coup. Her allusion to holding Egypt responsible for how aid received from the U.S. is used was echoed by Hanna, who described the intractability caused by multi-year contracts in the current process by which aid to Egypt is currently allocated. Clemons suggested changing how the aid is allocated, rather than whether it should be, arguing to shift from providing military aid to economic support funds (ESF’s).

All of the panelists took issue with U.S. policy toward Egypt in general in some way, describing it as inconsistent, misleading, and confusing both to Americans and the people of Egypt and the broader region. Concern was expressed about the future role Islamist parties may play in electoral politics Egypt and elsewhere; Abdo and Clemons warned of unforeseen challenges if Islamists don’t feel there is space within an electoral system for their political expression. Hanna warned that the previous U.S. model for the region, which he described as “repressive stability” is no longer tenable, given the uprisings of the last two years.

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