- - Wednesday, October 16, 2013



As the U.S. government reportedly plans to cut back significantly on its aid to Egypt against the wishes of key Arab allies and Israel, a question looms over the American relationship with one of the most important countries in the region: Who lost Egypt?

The answer starts June 4, 2009, with President Obama’s speech, “A New Beginning,” at Cairo University in which he outlined — only a few months after his first inauguration — what he considered the future of U.S. relations in the Middle East.

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice,” Mr. Obama told the audience.

Many of those throughout the Arab world took the president at his word. But the promises turned out to be rather hollow.

“Contradictory diplomatic and military messages suggest how enfeebled the U.S. has become in dealing with one of its closest allies in the Middle East,” Jonathan Guyer, a senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, wrote this week. “In fact, Washington does not even know what it expects from Cairo.”

So what went wrong?

The Western journalistic community that embraced the 2011 demonstrations against undemocratic and corrupt governments throughout the Arab world, including Egypt, often played the role of cheerleaders, failing to understand how autocratic forces like the Muslim Brotherhood hijacked the political process.

At the outset, it is important to understand that the term Arab Spring is abhorrent to many Egyptians and almost everyone who knows much about the country — one of the many erroneous reporting memes from Western journalists. For one thing, three seasons — which don’t include spring — exist in Egypt: the flooding of the Nile (roughly June through September), the growing of crops (roughly October through February), and the harvest that lasts from March through May.

The term Arab Spring — apparently used first by the Christian Science Monitor and Foreign Policy — irked Arab writers like Rami Khouri of the Beirut-based Daily Star. He noted that the protesters themselves preferred the words revolution, or “thawra” in Arabic, and awakening, or “sahwa.”

Arab Spring also rings hollow because it can refer to the failed Prague Spring of 1968, which Russian troops put down brutally, or the Spring of Nations in Europe of 1848, which also arguably resulted in little change.

During Egypt’s election campaign, many journalists and the Obama team failed to understand the Muslim Brotherhood, a group many reporters described as “moderate,” a term I rejected from the outset. Mohammed Morsi, the head of a party backed by the Brotherhood, won roughly 25 percent of the votes in the first round of the elections in late May 2012. In a runoff election against a discredited crony of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the vote to 48.3 for Mr. Shafik. That’s hardly a resounding endorsement.

Within months, Mr. Morsi essentially had declared himself the supreme ruler of the country and led Egypt through the arrest and torture of opponents, along with the collapse of the economy that left many people without food.

Western journalists and the Obama team described the Muslim Brotherhood as the democratically elected government. After 14 million Egyptians protested against the Brotherhood, the military took over, albeit with a heavy hand that I abhor. Nevertheless, the reduction in foreign aid to Egypt is likely to make relations significantly worse rather than bringing about democratic change — if that is the administration’s intention.

Who lost Egypt? The Obama administration has made numerous errors, while Western journalists have played a significant role in losing one of our most important allies.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] Twitter: @charper51.

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