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July 17, 2014

An Alarming Lack of Trust in Egypt

By Eric Eikenberry

The polls are in (the most recent Pew Research Center poll, that is), and at 85% disapproval, Egyptians have a less favorable view of the United States than any other nation.

More than a year after the coup against President Morsi brought the military back into power, Egyptian society remains deeply divided, but disliking the United States seems to be one thing Egyptians can agree on. There are many reasons for this disapproval, including dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the region, and America’s cozy relationship with a succession of repressive leaders in Cairo.

It is not likely that many in the Obama Administration or the Department of State are concerned about this latest result, especially since the United States has been getting bad ratings in the Middle East for years. These numbers, however, should cause them to reflect on recent history. The uprising of early 2011—involving mass protests throughout Egypt and the region, near-universal demands for democratic reforms, and the toppling of an ensconced autocrat viewed at the highest levels of U.S. government as a sure bet, even till the end—should have been seized as an opportunity for long postponed and much need change.

In so many areas of the world, the United States struggles to send a clear message that it stands for advancing the universal values of human rights through its foreign policy. It ties itself in knots trying to find a balance between its interests and its ideals, when it would do better to understand that this is a false dichotomy. The Egyptian revolution was a chance for the administration to recommit U.S. foreign policy to the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. President Obama himself seemed to sense this before the revolution occurred. In his well-received Cairo speech in 2009, the president endorsed the universality of human rights and stated that “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”

The latest Pew result shows that those words, once gratefully welcomed by Egyptians, have soured. American officials have fallen back on the old saw of “stability” instead. In September of 2011, as it was growing clear that the Supreme Council for Armed Forces had the shakiest of commitments to a genuine democratic transition, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the military leaders “a force for stability and continuity.” Two weeks later, the Egyptian army brutally attacked a peaceful protest comprised mostly of Egyptian Copts at Maspero, killing 28 and wounding over 200, one of many violent actions taken against peaceful protesters after Mubarak’s ouster.

Morsi’s presidency received initial support from the Obama Administration, the right move considering his democratic election. Yet as Morsi and his backers grew more authoritarian—placing their actions outside of judicial review, attacking pro-democracy civil society organizations, drafting the 2012 constitution in a —the United States could not move from mild criticism to concrete action. Even towards the end, President Obama approved military aid to Morsi’s regime over the objections of Congress, and Ambassador Anne Patterson dismissed the need for protests.

Now, with a feeling of déjà vu worthy of Groundhog Day, the Obama Administration is all-in on Sisi and SCAF - for stability’s sake But the widespread censorship, the destabilizing incarceration crisis, and Sisi’s own declaration that Egyptian democracy is twenty-five years away suggest that Egypt is not on any kind of track for a peaceful, democratic transition.

While Pew’s numbers, like all surveys, can be dismissed as reflecting the mood of the moment, in context they reveal a lack of trust which should alarm anyone who cares about the United States’ ability to support Egyptians pushing for a future free of authoritarian rule. Try pursuing public diplomacy in a nation where four out of five people believe that you’re acting from ulterior motives instead of mutual self-interest. Try supporting civil society and democracy-building, when both the activists and their opponents think you’re not on their side. Instead of trusting the Egyptian people in 2011, in 2014 we’re still grasping for stability. A return to authoritarianism in Egypt will not bring stability, nor serve U.S. interests