Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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What to Do in Egypt

by Elliott Abrams
January 31, 2014


It is a commonplace to say that U.S. policy in Egypt has managed to offend every political actor there, but it’s also true. From the army to the Muslim Brotherhood, from the liberals and democrats to Islamists, all share a deep disdain for American policy.

In one way all their criticisms are justified, for American policy has been unprincipled and appears to have been aimed at currying favor with whoever is in power: Mubarak, then the SCAF, then Morsi, and now the army again. As the ins and outs have changed position, they’ve all come to despise America’s approach.

What should we do in the immensely complex situation in Egypt? The Working Group on Egypt, of which I am a member, has just written to the President to urge an American policy that is both realistic and principled. The Group is a nonpartisan collection of former officials and think-tank analysts, which earned a bit of credit in 2009 and 2010 when we insisted that Mubarak’s Egypt was far less stable than it looked to many people. Here are some excerpts from our letter, the full text of which can be found here.


The idea that there will be a trade-off between democracy and stability in Egypt is false. A realistic assessment of what is happening in Egypt—a massive crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, mounting repression of peaceful critics of the coup, societal polarization and troubling vigilante violence, persistent demonstrations, escalating militant attacks on police and military targets—shows that repressive, security-dominated rule will not produce long-, medium-, or even short-term stability. Especially since the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision-making.

A wave of prosperity could in theory calm the political situation, at least temporarily, but the immense challenges facing Egypt’s economy make any quick fixes impossible; the restive political environment makes it unlikely that the public will swallow painful economic reforms while their political rights are squelched. Gulf largesse is likely to be squandered through short-term populist economic policies.

In fact, the brutal tactics now regularly used by the Egyptian government against civilians, the suppression of dissent, the crushing not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but of non Islamist political actors, and economic regression are likely to erode the popularity of Egypt’s rulers in short order. The banning of all peaceful dissent will close off space for moderate politics and will produce further repression, more unrest, and great economic damage. All in all, it is a formula for at best a brief honeymoon followed by increasing and long-lasting instability….

It is essential that you take a fresh look at U.S. policy towards Egypt and decide to use both diplomacy and assistance to send a clear message about what sort of future the United States wants to encourage for the country, and what sort of actions it cannot support….

We urge you to instruct Secretary of State Kerry not to certify that Egypt’s government has met the Congressionally-mandated conditions solely, or primarily, on the basis of its holding elections or following other procedural aspects of democracy while it also carries out massive human rights violations with impunity. The hollowness of the recent constitutional referendum was made clear by the government’s blatant disregard of the rights and freedoms the new Constitution purports to protect, notably the rights of freedom of assembly and expression that were crudely denied before and after the vote. The near-certainty that General al-Sissi will run for president makes it even clearer that real political contestation has ended.

Rather, we urge you to take seriously the question of certifying that the Egyptian government is “taking steps to support a democratic transition,” and to tell Egyptian officials that you will certify only if they take the following steps:

  • End the broad security and media campaign against those who peacefully oppose the actions of the interim government and the military, release the thousands of opposition group members, supporters, and activists now detained on questionable charges and with disregard for their due-process rights, and allow all citizens not implicated in violence to participate fully in political life
  • End the use of live ammunition to disperse protesters, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, and respect basic rights to freedom of peaceful assembly
  • Cease repression of other peaceful dissidents and drop investigations and lawsuits launched against youth activists, former members of parliament, journalists, and academics for peaceful activity protected by international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a signatory
  • Stop media campaigns against the United States and American organizations, which are contributing to an unprecedented level of anti-American sentiment as well as endangering Americans and other foreigners, not only in Egypt but in neighboring countries where Egyptian media are present.

Unless the Egyptian government takes these steps, we recommend that all or most assistance continue to be suspended in order to send a clear message of concern and disapproval about the dangerous course Egypt is on.

The United States may have valid reasons of state interest for sustaining counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation with the Egyptian government. In an environment in which peaceful political activists, academics, and analysts are being hit with specious charges of espionage and terrorism, however, the United States must take extreme care to focus its terrorism and intelligence cooperation with Egypt on real threats to U.S. interests, and make clear to the Egyptian government that it will not endorse or contribute to an all-out war on the regime’s political opponents.

I realize that many will read this letter and think it utopian and out of touch with reality. But I’ve been hearing for years how supporting repression in Egypt is the only “realistic” path for the United States, and I find that the “realist” approach is the one so often out of touch with reality. As the passages above argue, a military dictatorship in Egypt is unlikely to reform the economy (in part because the army will seek to protect, not reform, its vast commercial holdings) and produce prosperity, nor is repression likely to produce social peace. Egyptians are deeply divided. If there is no opportunity to struggle politically over the country’s path, it is likely that the struggle will take place in the streets. Mubarak ran Egypt as a military dictatorship for 30 years and that period produced today’s instability. More of the same formula will produce more of the same result.

The Working Group’s letter ends this way:

The United States cannot control what happens in Egypt, but a consistent U.S. stand for democracy and human rights can influence the political trajectory of this important U.S. ally. Such a strategy will be far more successful over time than subsidizing a brutal crackdown and putting U.S. credibility behind a political arrangement that works against U.S. interests as well as those of Egyptian citizens.

Post a Comment 15 Comments

  • Posted by Dan

    “I realize that many will read this letter and think it utopian and out of touch with reality.”

    Count me as one. Bring on the men in white coats.

  • Posted by Adam

    Count me two.

    “The United States cannot control what happens in Egypt, but a consistent U.S. stand for democracy and human rights can influence the political trajectory of this important U.S. ally.”

    No, the U.S. can neither control nor substantially influence the political trajectory in Egypt. Except to alienate the army, and lose them as an ally…

  • Posted by Dan

    Besides what’s wrong with the Brotherhood being displaced? The Egyptian military has done the world a favor. Obama was grooming the terrorist organization for a leading role in the Islamic world and the USA too. Curses, foiled again.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    Great steps! but I do not think there will be a democratically elected civilian government which will respect the human rights of all its citizens, and calls for positive steps towards a true reconciliation because the non-Islamists are bad, while the Islamists worst and they even worse than dictators. this of course excludes Jews from this conflict.
    The United States must continues to freeze the military and economic aids to the Egyptians as long as they have no desire to stop the campaigns of hatred against the United States and its organizations! I think there is no influential allies in the region more important than the Saudis and Israelis.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    Dan and Adam, thank you! but I do not think Mr. Abrams meant that this letter will be read only by his readers. It’s likely to be read by a lot of policy makers in the United States and many in Egypt and the region!?

  • Posted by Stephen Albert


    A well principled well-reasoned letter.

    Whether principle and logic will get the Obama Administration to change course on Egypt is an open question.Their Middle East policy, is one of wishful thinking married to convenience and chaperoned by a lack of imagination.

    Adopting the policies you champion requires long run thinking and a dedication to the belief that democracy is the best guarantee of stability. Support of change that fulfills the promise of the Arab Spring requires a commitment i am not sure this Administration can be convinced to make.

  • Posted by Dan

    Jassem Othman, I don’t understand your point. No matter who’s the intended audience my comments stand.

  • Posted by Keefe Goldfisher

    The poet Yates toted up his objections quietly during open council meetings for the small Irish town he lived in, and nearly always heard during questioning all of them raised by his neighbors. Most of the commenters here similarly objected the way I would have:
    — Chances that the President cum advisors would make an informed decision that stakes out American interests first are nil.

    — That our policies towards Egypt cannot be in isolation to other interests needs be said; it was a blessing that the MB was displaced and that the Army assumed control.

    — Allowing peaceful protest when you’re trying to undo the MB’s toxic affects is too far down the list to their being able to maintain order.

    — The short-term stability of Egyptian society, without a Sharia-based constitution, is beneficial to Egyptian, Israeli, Saudi and US interests, given that a starved population’s restiveness in the public square will lead to open rebellion that has nothing to do with how they feel about the West before it is amenable to self-enforced influence by agreement with corrupt elites; because that’s where this pressure the letter describes would be exerted, on the haves in the Army.

    Acceding to the letter’s intents is a suicide pact for the armed forces assisting al-Sisi, undermines cooperation with Israel, empowers the worst anti-Semitic elements in the country, leaves the way clear for Russian meddling, dancing with Iranians and no dancing with the US.

    The letter was correct in many regards, but all our energies should ASSUME that we pressure for democracy, while we try to bring prosperity to that country. The best way to do that is to educate the next generation, using all methods to do so. The benightedness and corruption of Egypt is what causes its instability–the absolute ignorance of the bulk of its people and funneling of cash to the Army. Until a leader tells the Army that they must think of their country before their business interests, and gets buy-in, we’re better of supporting the least worst forces there.

  • Posted by Adam

    Question to Mr. Abrams: if a principle of U.S. policy in the ME is to push a “democratic trajectory” on its erstwhile, albeit authoritarian allies, then would you push for democratic reform in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, given the largely unpalatable and chaotic outcomes we have seen elsewhere (in the Arab Spring)? And if so, are you prepared to lose these countries as allies if that is the price?

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    Dear Mr. Dan, I meant nothing wrong. I highly appreciate your views and your contribution on this great website. Best regards!

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    To Adam:
    If you ask the king of Jordan, he will say his goal is to create an increasingly democratic constitutional monarchy. Supporting reforms –slo, steady, sensible reforms–will not alienate him or cause chaos.
    The Saudis are different and pressing for democratic reforms is not sensible today. But it is sensible to remind the royal family that they do not own the country and must come to some modus vivendi, some partnership, with the fast-growing populace.

  • Posted by Nasser Aal

    USA is helping Al Sisi while he is pushing MS to extremism and the Egyptian society at large toward a civil war. The world cannot afford the failure of Egypt. Egypt is located in the middle of the Arab region and the whole world, it controls Suez Canal, and it has boarders with Israel. Erupting a civil war in Egypt will put the entire world on fire.
    USA and its allies in the Egyptian army are giving Egyptians three options only: either to shut up their mouth, go to goal, or fight for their freedom.

  • Posted by Keefe Goldfisher

    Wanted to add that I too enjoy the site and the reasoning on display, regardless of my slight difference. And, of course, the poet I referred to is Yeats, not Yates (My kingdom for no more typos.). Thank you Mr Abrams for subjecting yourself to our barbs.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    No doubt the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States it’s a relationship of integration and dissonance. At this time of instability and chaos in the Middle East, it is better to maintain good relations with Saudis because Saudi Arabia is an important ally to the U.S. It provides a secure source of oil to United States and maintains the stability of the oil market, as well as it plays an important and influential role in international and regional affairs. These are not minor matters. Ultimately I prefer some Saudis on a lot of Europeans who are racists and anti-Semites.
    Might some members of the Royal Family do sincerely support the USA but it is very necessary to get rid of the Wahhabi grip so that they can maintain good relations with America and the west in general. It’s difficult, but also it’s so hard to live in a world without America. The battle there is with the Wahhabis because Wahhabism is the enemy, the enemy that promoting war on infidels and against them as well, therefore they should stay away from Wahhabism and its evils and not allow them to interfere in the affairs of state. So I believe that Prince Bandar and others of good moderates have great courage to do so!

  • Posted by EMT

    Dear Mr. Abrams and dear colleagues,
    In reference to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, I believe the time is too premature, to push anyone, because there are too many negative currents in the Middle East, and any error from our part could ruin the little progress that may have been made.
    Take a look at what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians in light of the fact that the situation of Iran, Iraq and Syria is unstable and has not been resolved. It’s not the right time for Israel – Palestinian agreements, while the situation in Iraq got worse, and Syria is in disarray. In reference to Jordan, Al Qaida is at its borders, and pushing for democracy at this time is inappropriate. In reference to Egypt, the situation is blurry and they need time to stabilize the country before any reform can be implemented. Any disturbance can have negative effects on the oil supply through the Suez Canal.
    In reference to Saudi Arabia, which until now was not taken into consideration when we pushed for ousting Mubarak, we know that they supplied Egypt with enormous sums of money to enable el Sissi to act. For the moment Egypt is about to clear the Sinai Peninsula and parts of Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Al Qaida. I believe that stability in the Middle East depends on Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
    My best advice is to hold off with democratization plans until things settle down. In my view, the Obama administration wanted to change too many things too rapidly, and within five years it was not able to enhance the situation in the Middle East countries, but rather plunge them in turmoil. The only country which seems to find some stability is Tunisia, due to an intelligent man, Mr. Caid Essebsi, who initiated the dialog with the EnNahda parti, since the beginning. They finally recognized that it is better to find an amicable solution that to impose religious laws in Tunisia.

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