Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Quotable: Michael Wahid Hanna on anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories in Egypt

Tuesday, November 24th 2015
Those who focus on U.S. relations with Egypt and the Middle East will want to read the article, “Getting Over Egypt: Time to Rethink Relations,” by Michael Wahid Hanna, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, in the November-December, 2015, issue of Foreign Affairs.  He’s critical of the current shape of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, and he urges that the U.S. “fundamentally alter its approach to Egypt: downgrading the priority it places on the relationship, reducing the level of economic and military support it offers Cairo, and more closely tying the aid it does deliver to political, military, and economic reforms …”

A portion of Hanna’s lengthy article will particularly interest Public Diplomacy practitioners – a discussion of anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories in Egypt.

I served in Korea during the “anti-American wind” (panmi param) of the 1980s.  At that time, Embassy people felt how social trends, resentments, injured pride, rule by generals, national curricula in history and “ethics,” and a media under state vigilance could foster resentments and give credence to conspiracy theories.  Both anti-Americanism and conspiracy thinking were of primary concern to those of us at the U.S. Information Service (USIS), so for me, Hanna’s article recalls many headaches.  It provides, however, a valuable case profile.

Even in the heyday of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation, the two countries did not see eye to eye on many issues. But the current gap between their worldviews and priorities is larger than at any time in the past.

Perhaps the most visceral expression of this phenomenon is the way in which anti-Americanism—always latent in Egyptian society, media, and politics—has exploded beyond its traditional boundaries to become a core feature of political discourse and official propaganda in Egypt. Throughout the Mubarak years, anti-Americanism was a common staple of regime-affiliated media. Such official and officially encouraged rhetoric served to inoculate the regime against a broad array of criticisms of its close relations with the Americans, particularly during the Bush-era “war on terror,” when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the CIA’s use of torture, Washington’s indefinite detention of terrorist suspects in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the United States’ unwavering support for Israel deepened public antipathy to the United States. Criticism of the United States was pointed but stayed within clear boundaries.

The current gap between American and Egyptian worldviews and priorities is larger than at any time in the past.

During Sisi’s time in power, however, a categorically different kind of anti-Americanism—vitriolic, paranoid, and warped by conspiracy theories—has come to dominate Egyptian media. State-backed media outlets have published scurrilous, bizarre stories alleging extensive U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Sisi’s Islamist opponents—not only the Muslim Brotherhood but even ISIS.

Not only does Sisi’s regime tolerate such conspiracy theories, but elements of the security establishment even promote them as part of an attempt to sell Egypt as a regional bulwark against Washington’s supposed goal of dividing and dominating the Arab world. Earlier this year, Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, the former commander of the Egyptian navy and the current head of the Suez Canal Authority, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that during the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, the Egyptian military thwarted a potential U.S. military intervention. Two U.S. frigates “were besieged by the navy and were forced to withdraw from [Egypt’s] territorial waters,” Mamish claimed. “It was important to show the Americans that the Egyptian military was highly diligent and prepared to deter any intervention,” he explained.

Incendiary rhetoric such as this is particularly rankling given that many Egyptian military leaders, including Sisi himself, have received training at U.S. military institutions as participants in a program designed to increase the professionalism of the armed forces of American allies and partners. Yet this extensive, decades-long effort has not produced the hoped-for doctrinal or structural shifts within the Egyptian armed forces nor increased the competence of Egypt’s military leadership. As a result, there is not much close cooperation, confidence, or trust between the two militaries. This gap is so large now that the United States has made no effort to include Egypt in an operational role in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS military campaign, despite the obvious need for Arab military partners.

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