Hard Power Trumps Soft In U.S. Policy Towards Egypt

“But as the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear, the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent. We cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, National Democratic Institute, November 7, 2011.

On Monday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton excoriated Egypt’s military junta for its violence towards protesters, particularly women, in the “Second Revolution”, but the military forces have continued throughout the week to attack protesters and to fire live ammunition at them.

In a speech at Georgetown University on December 19th, the Secretary stated, “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people.”

Until the United States backs up its words with actions, it will appear to Egyptians, and the world, that it is choosing short-term security with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) over long term support for human rights, civil society, and a just society with a government answerable to the people.

The U.S. has leverage in Egypt $1.3 billion in aid annually to the Egyptian military. Until now, the Obama administration has been unwilling to restrict or condition this support, despite requests to do so from some members of Congress.

No wonder, then, that the SCAF was unfazed by the President Obama’s statement, released at three a.m. on November 25th, calling for a “full transfer of power to a civilian government” in a “just and inclusive manner.”

Neither the president’s vague support for civilian authority, nor the Secretary’s condemnation of the military’s assaults on female protesters have made an impact in Egypt, where the United States is judged by its actions, not words. (And since President Obama’s vaunted Cairo Speech of June 2009, they have become accustomed to words that are not backed by actions.)

One week ago I walked the then-peaceful streets near Tahrir where over 17 people have been killed since last Friday. On the morning of December 17th, the military began its assault on the small number of unarmed protesters staging a sit in before Parliament, demanding the ouster of the SCAF.

Over the next week the military staged repeated attacks, bludgeoning protesters, firing live ammunition from the streets and from sniper’s vantage points on rooftops. Even as the SCAF tried to pin the aggression on the protesters, the many videos of the dead and wounded, as well as the shocking images of the military ganging up on defenseless protesters, including women, provide irrefutable evidence of their violence against their own people.

The historic women’s march on Tuesday belied the SCAF-supported narrative defining the protesters as a leftist fringe that did not represent the Egyptian people. Thousands of women of all ages, of all walks of life, veiled and unveiled, marched together in defense of their dignity and their basic human rights.

Today Tahrir is full again, and protesters are turning out in Alexandria (largest numbers since January) and other cities, in the march “to regain Egypt’s honor.” The liberal and youth parties all have pledged to join, as have sheikhs and scholars from al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading religious institution. They will be mourning the death of Sheikh Emad Effat, a leading Al-Azhar official killed by the military in the protests this week.

The Muslim Brotherhood, lately favored with a visit by Senate Foreign Relations Chair John Kerry and a positive article by Nicholas Kristof, officially have not endorsed the protests, although individual members, and particularly Brotherhood youth are joining.

Urging members to boycott the protests, the Salafis have gone so far as to condemn female protesters, including the now famous “blue bra ” woman so viciously assaulted, for their participation in the marches.

Chants from the protesters are calling mainly for accountability for the military’s crimes against humanity, demanding that Tantawi and the SCAF face prosecution.

As the United States leads with gestures such as the pledge of $10,000 to victims of violence during the protests, (notwithstanding the irony of U.S. manufactured tear gas inflicting some of the wounds), Egyptians wonder why the US, specifically President Obama, will not take a stronger stand against the SCAF.

The apparent timidity of the US government is all the more astonishing given the SCAF’s campaign against “foreign interference” — apparently $1.3 billion from the U.S. is exempt — of which the U.S. is often a target. The strategy runs the gamut from insinuations to outrageous claims of U.S.-backed plots to destabilize Egypt.

The “soft power”, i.e., the power to lead by example, of the U.S. has reached an all-time low in Egypt. Female Presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel recently declined a nomination for the annual Women of Courage award at the State Department. The coordinator of Kamel’s campaign Amr al-Ansary, stated that she “cannot accept an award stained with the blood of the martyrs”, explaining that the US government, the donor of the award, “participated, even if indirectly, in the crackdown on the revolution, importing weapons that were used on Egyptian protesters.”

The mounting chaos surrounding the withdrawals of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq provides daily reminders of the limits of “hard power.” As the Arab world transitions — sometimes smoothly, sometimes not — from dictatorships to representative governments, the “soft power” of the United States as an example is more important than ever before. Yet, it is in painfully short supply.

In using only words against the SCAF’s aggression and violation of human rights (12,000 political prisoners in military courts, no accountability for the deaths since January), without the action of restricting military aid, the United States appears to be choosing the short term “hard power” and security of the “stability” provided by the SCAF over the long term interests of dignity, justice, democracy. and human rights for the Egyptian people.

There is still time, indeed a precious opportunity, to redeem the promise of the president’s and secretary’s words. But without action, they will remain just words, and Egyptian people will continue to associate the United States with the weapons pouring down on them.