February 4, 2012

White House Still Sheltering Egypt’s SCAF

Sam LaHood has fallen prey to causality. In charge of the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Egypt program, LaHood and a handful of his comrades (and possibly his wife) are currently holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as they await a legal ruling. On Friday Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that his son’s case would “hopefully” be resolved soon, but until then he cannot leave the country.

Just another manifestation of Egypt’s ongoing counterrevolution.

Politicized by U.S. and Egyptian officials alike, LaHood’s high-profile and 17 other Americans’ personal experiences have generated an accurate reflection of Washington’s siege mentality towards revolutionary Egypt. The battle over U.S.-funded NGO’s is certainly significant within the revolution’s arc; viewed as an assault on Egypt’s nascent democracy, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is simultaneously mining nationalistic propaganda and testing the limits of Washington’s aid. Beyond the 17 individuals banned from traveling, Egyptian groups are being targeted by an investigation into the initial raids.

"It is one of the frontlines of the revolution," says Nasser Amin, Director General of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP). "It is the counter revolution that is attacking us."

The status of 17 Americans assumes an understandable priority in the effort to resolve their legal obstacles and obtain their freedom. However the Obama administration’s emphasis on the NGO scandal has served a useful purpose by minimizing the SCAF’s other flaws. Egypt’s grander scheme continues to play out in Cairo’s streets, where thousands vent their bottomless distrust for SCAF and Interior Ministry. Fresh off Port Said’s tragedy - an incident that the administration has yet to politically react to - Egyptians gathered for a “Friday of Anger” that left at least 5 people dead and 1,400 wounded. These casualties added to Port Said’s estimated total of 74 and boosted anti-SCAF sentiment in the process.

"We believe this is something that has been well-organized," said Khaled Mortagy, a member of Al-Ahly's governing board. "I'm sure there are some hidden hands behind this, but we cannot really see, or we cannot really confirm, who is behind all that."

The general conspiracy alleges that police were ordered to stand down as part of the SCAF’s “us or the revolutionaries” campaign. Gen. Ismail Osman, an SCAF member, told Mehwar TV on Thursday that the military and police were not responsible, counter-arguing that fans instigated hostilities throughout the match. “Our policemen tried to contain them but not engage.” Osman may have valid points - soccer fans can be notoriously wild - but few involved Egyptians are inclined to listen after a year of active counter-revolution. Al-Ahly fans are especially inflexible after participating in the revolution; one pamphlet from the group declared, "The crimes committed against the revolutionary forces will not stop the revolution or scare the revolutionaries.”

While expressing sympathies over Port Said’s disaster, the Obama administration prefers to devote 24/7 coverage to Cairo’s U.S. Embassy rather than its Interior Ministry. Here the low-intensity evidence of fourth-generation warfare (4GW) is scattered across an urban battlefield: rocks, tear gas canisters and bird pellets. Some protesters took the initiative of besieging government buildings, with their eyes trained on the Interior Ministry, but an overriding goal of 4GW is triggering disproportionate force and the ensuing political fallout. Egypt’s police predictably obliged, and social media would document Friday’s chaos in semi-real time.

"It was like a war," said a young doctor attending the wounded in Tahrir Square. "We didn't sleep at all. In just this tent, we had 500 people in eight hours. It started with tear gas, then wounds from stones. And after that it was shotgun pellets."

Activists claim that Port Said’s events are drawing previously-inactive Egyptians into the revolution. The White House and State Department have yet to respond to the weekend’s protests.

Although U.S. officials are leaning on SCAF at various pressure points, their weight is calibrated to preserve U.S. interests rather than advance the revolution’s cause. The SCAF has reacted by deploying a military team to Washington, leading to extensive meetings within Congress, the State Department and Pentagon (access the revolutionaries lack). Their efforts to influence Congress’s vote on a $1.3 billion bill also appear partially successful. As the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, Senator Patrick Leahy threw down Washington’s terms to the SCAF: free and fair elections, due process of law and freedom of expression, association, and religion.

"We want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over. We value the relationship and will provide substantial amounts of aid, but not unconditionally,"

Leahy didn’t speak clearly enough though. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can overrule Congress’s decision by citing “US national security interests,” so long as she notifies Congress. Her main conditions reportedly center around NGOs and the prosecution of those policemen who assaulted Mona El-Tahawy, a “falsified” incident in Tantawi’s opinion. Leahy also preoccupied himself with NGO raids rather than the SCAF’s daily suppression of revolutionary energy. The same goes for President Barack Obama, who phones Tantawi on occasion to voice his concerns - before praising the SCAF’s guidance.

“The democratic transition in Egypt is hanging in the balance,” Khairat El-Shater, deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, warned from the group’s headquarters. “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.”

Yet figures such as Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon continue to vouch for the SCAF, lavishing praise on its handling of Egypt’s election. One of many officials to defend the SCAF and General Hussein Tantawi, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explicitly outlined Washington’s priorities on his way to NATO’s ministerial in Brussels. He says he told Tantawi, “you're making progress in Egypt, you've gone through the elections, you've taken off the emergency law, you're on a path towards establishing a democracy there, it's extremely important that we maintain the relationship and continue to work together to provide for your security, but our ability to maintain that relationship is being impacted by how this matter is being handled.”

Panetta’s comments fully expose Washington’s counterrevolutionary effect, mixing ambiguous remarks like “you’re making progress” with falsities such “taking off the emergency law.” Tantawi only lifted parts of the emergency law and used his platform to slander the revolutionaries as “thugs.” Panetta also claimed that the SCAF “obviously has to deal now with the parliament” and “an independent judiciary,” when the latter remains under SCAF control. All U.S. officials ignore the overall lack of trust that continues to swell (due to political interference and de facto immunity for the Interior Ministry), preferring to enumerate the SCAF’s achievements. Fortunately Tantawi does have to “deal with parliament;” although the SCAF is coordinating with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group is equally willing to inverse its rhetoric.

“It has now become evidently clear to everyone that there are individuals who are plotting to burn this homeland and demolish its institutions,” Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said in a televised speech on Friday. “They are trained for this. They are known to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the police, who are delaying bringing them to justice, which is totally unacceptable.”

Washington has muted calls to accelerate the civilian transition, but Egypt’s non-binding advisory council is now issuing “a revolutionary plea.” One member, Sherif Zahran, told Reuters, "The advisory council will consider halting its meetings if the military council does not respond.”

What Panetta ultimately describes is a recipe for maintaining U.S. relations with Egypt’s SCAF: don’t obstruct elections, coerce the victors, minimize the revolution’s demands for civilian oversight. Whether by luck or design, falling into bed with the SCAF turned out to be Washington’s best contingency - a marked improvement over Omar Suleiman. Despite its sporadic hostilities, the SCAF provides Washington with the most cooperative partner available, resulting in mutual appreciation and a hardened counter-revolution.

"There are going to be differences of opinion,” argues Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby. “There were before the popular revolution there... Part of what makes a relationship a relationship is the ability to continue to discuss and try to find a way to move forward even beyond the differences you might share.”

Sadly Cairo and Washington’s politico-military leaders share an unbreakable bond: the desire to obstruct and divert Egypt’s revolutionary wave.


  1. The soccer massacre of last week could yet prove a catalyst for SCAF and Egypt generally. Not strategic in itself but the kind of incident which festers. I fear civil war is inevitable. Who does the West back then? Not the 'Islamists' clearly but who does that leave?

  2. Would take an unforeseeable destructive event to trigger any level of civil war in Egypt, but the U.S. would presumably back whatever security apparatus remained against the pro-democracy movement, Islamists. Notice that Washington is ignoring Port Said and its aftermath for as long as possible.

    Although not the deciding factor of U.S. policy, many Americans appear to support the SCAF's authority due to various security issues in the Gulf.