The Arab World Between Regime Change and Political Reform

The American tendency to overthrow existing governments in sovereign states has been fuel and fodder for conspiracy theories of the last decade.

Anti-Mursi protesters cheer and hold up a poster depicting U.S. president Barack Obama with a beard at Tahrir square, where protesters gathered for a mass protest to support the army, in Cairo, July 26, 2013. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters.

The winds of change in the Arab World brought upon by street protests or popular uprisings since late 2010 were at first seen as prayers answered for those in the West who had been calling for this ancient region to democratize.

In fact, the call on leaders of the Arab world to change the authoritarian way of governing was stressed several times by U.S. officials and became a basic item on the political agenda of President George W. Bush and his Neo-Conservative team in Washington (2000-2008). His team went as far as envisaging the forceful introduction of democracy in the region through what its members called “regime change”. The Bush administration tried to do this already by launching the war on Iraq in March 2003. Condoleezza Rice, his Secretary of State, reiterated this view later in Cairo in 2005, stating that “for more than half a century the United States had chosen to pursue stability at the expense of democracy and achieved neither,” adding that “that would be true no longer”. A year later, while on a visit to Beirut—which was being bombarded by Israeli warplanes during the war on Lebanon—she found the assault by Israeli troops on Hezbollah forces to be the beginning of a “New Middle East”.

Succeeding George W. Bush, in January 2009, President Barack Obama could not but draw lessons from the failure of the policy of “regime change” and other tools used by his predecessor to forcefully bring democracy to the region. He did not abandon belief in democracy as the best system of government, however, but did not see the wisdom of imposing it on other countries. 

That was the message he stressed in his Cairo University speech in June 2009: “So Let me be clear : no system of government can or should be imposed  on one nation by any other” before adding “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the  people”. He also raised issues of human rights, women’s rights and religious tolerance.

A year-and-a-half later in January 2011, when the Tunisian Revolution had just started, Hilary Clinton, his Secretary of State, emphasized the urgency of reform in the Arab world in her address to the Forum for Future conference in Doha which was part of the Middle East Initiative. She warned Arab ministers, business pundits and human rights activists who took part in that conference, saying:

“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand. You can help build a future that your young people will believe in, stay for and defend”.  She added: “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while but not forever”. She ended that speech by saying “Let us face honestly that future. Let us discuss openly what needs to be done. Let us use this time to go beyond rhetoric, to put away plans that are timid and gradual and make a commitment that keeps this region moving in the right direction”. 

Moving away from the call for “regime change” that had been adopted by the Bush Administration, Obama and his team strove to persuade Arab leaders to introduce reforms widening the scope of political liberties for their people. This signaled a major shift in U.S. policy on political change in the Arab world. For the Obama Administration, political changes should be undertaken as reforms carried out by Arab leaders in a gradual manner. The role of the U.S. government was to offer them advice and help them travel its path.

How to push the reform agenda in the Middle East?

Given the slow pace of reform in the Arab world at that time, Obama felt that more should be done to give effect to his advice to Arab rulers. Reacting to President Mubarak’s  decision to extend the state of emergency for two more years in 2010, and urged by his friend and adviser Samantha Power to take action on this occasion, he asked her and three National Security Council colleagues, -namely Dennis Ross, Gayle Smith and Jeremy Weinstein- to offer him a blueprint for a Presidential Study Directive stating that “U.S. interests in stability in the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by United States uncritical support of authoritarian regimes”. 

Obama later revealed in his own words that he used this Directive in August 2010 to “instruct the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and other government agencies to examine ways the United States could encourage meaningful political and economic reforms in the region to nudge those nations closer to the principles of open government so that they might avoid the destabilizing uprisings, violence and chaos and unpredictable outcomes that so often accompanied sudden change.” The National Security Council team conducted biweekly meetings with Middle East experts from across the government and could finally produce by mid-December 2010 documents “laying out a strategy with a set of principles to guide a shift of strategy,” thanks to which U.S. officials across agencies would be expected to deliver a consistent and coherent message on the need for reform. They would also be able to develop specific recommendations for liberalizing political and civic life in various countries and offer a range of new incentives to encourage their adoption.

US administration in the face of Arab revolts

Does this talk about the necessity of economic and political reforms in the Arab world and the drafting of a set of recommendations on how to get Arab governments to act on them amount to an American conspiracy to provoke revolutions in the region? If this were the “conspiracy”, were revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the uprisings in Bahrain, and mass demonstrations in other Arab countries the enactment of this conspiracy? Apart from Libya and Syria, the two countries where the U.S. intervened militarily against incumbent regimes, did the U.S. administration have any control over the unfolding events in the other countries including Egypt?

Reading accounts of the internal debates within the Obama Administration at the time of the January 2011 Revolution in Egypt, one does not find any indication that top policymakers in that administration anticipated what happened in the country or that they were all thrilled by what was happening. Both Obama and Hilary Clinton pointed to a division between the top policymakers with a generational gap separating two sides. The elders including then Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon were calling for caution, being apprehensive about a possible victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. Their initial preference was for Mubarak  to undertake reforms that could satisfy the young revolutionaries. 

To convey this message to Mubarak, Obama chose Frank Wisner, former ambassador to Egypt who had known the Egyptian president, to do the job. Those who were in favor of abandoning Mubarak from the very beginning were the young members of Obama’s team, interestingly including Antony Blinken who is now the Secretary of State under President Biden. 

Obama’s call for the Egyptian president to resign came on February 1 following Mubarak’s speech on the same day, which indicated that he had no intention of preparing the way for a peaceful transition of power. A telephone conversation between the two leaders also failed in persuading Mubarak to do just that. It was also certain at that time that he had lost the support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. American top military and security officials were in almost daily communications with senior Egyptian military and intelligence officials to “make clear that a military sanctioned crackdown on protesters would have severe consequences on any future U.S.-Egyptian relationship”.

Relations with political actors in Egypt.

The memoirs of both Obama and Clinton cover the period ending in 2012, which corresponds to the end of his first term in office as U.S. president and the end of her post as secretary of state. They do not therefore deal with U.S. reactions to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, nor with relations with the Egyptian government after the events which brought General Abdel Fattah Sisi to rule the country.  

Clinton’s email communications, as well as those of other U.S. official documents published by WikiLeaks, provide interesting insights on how certain agencies of the U.S. government viewed political forces in Egypt during the crucial two-and-a-half years of the revolution.

Such documents do not say much about the secular revolutionary groups of young Egyptians who took the initiative in calling for the revolution. There’s nothing about the April 6 Youth Movement, the Khaled Sa’eid Facebook page or the other groups that were active in Tahrir Square. Egyptian authorities later claimed that April 6 movement received American funds but could not substantiate that claim. Ahmad Maher, the leader of the group, was arrested, imprisoned and tried in November 2013 for leading an unauthorized demonstration but not for illegally receiving foreign funding. However, the impression that Clinton had of all such groups was quite negative, viewing them to be lacking political experience, of no knowledge on how to establish political parties or gain votes in a democratic election.

Egyptian media highlighted the importance of meetings of Muslim Brotherhood cadres with officials of the State Department and even suggested that Clinton ordered them to wreak havoc in Egypt. The email messages she received indicate that some Muslim Brothers went to Washington, together with representatives of Islamist movements in other Arab countries, notably Tunisia and Morocco, on an invitation to take part in a seminar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a well-known think tank in Washington. They did not meet Clinton, but she was informed of a meeting they had with a senior official of the State Department.

In her 2014 book, Hard Choices, Clinton gave an account of her meetings with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawy and described him as quite eager that the transitional period ends well and that the army goes back to barracks. She appreciated the fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under Tanatawy ran fair and free presidential elections and handed power to the winner in that election, namely, the late Mohammed Morsi.

It is true that during the crucial months (November 22, 2012 and June 30, 2013) of escalating tension between the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Morsi and the liberal opposition headed by Mohammed ElBaradei, U.S. ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson (July 2011-August 2013) tried to mediate between the two sides, with no success. It is also true that the Obama Administration was dismayed by the overthrow of Morsi in July 2013, his imprisonment together with other Brotherhood leaders, suspension of the constitution, and emergence of General Abdel Fattah Sisi as the new strongman in Egypt. Following these developments, the Obama Administration, in the autumn of 2013, withheld some heavy weapons sales that were supposed to be delivered to Egypt as part of its annual military assistance. The weapons were released two years later following the election of President Sisi in 2014 and a new Assembly of Deputies in late 2015.

Powerbroker USA?

Could Washington’s welcome of the elections of a Muslim Brother to the Egyptian presidency, meetings between Muslim Brothers and State Department officials at the  National Security Council in Washington in April 2012, and withholding of military assistance to Egypt all be construed as signs of U.S. sympathy toward the Brotherhood? Could the actions and later revelations of senior U.S. officials indicate prior American planning to engineer a revolution to bring them to power in Egypt?

In fact, this is the view of those who believe that the January 25 Revolution was from the very beginning an American conspiracy to put Islamists in power in Egypt, presumably because they would better serve U.S. interests in the region. The materials examined for this essay, including memoirs of two U.S. top officials and documents of the State Department, suggest the contrary: the United States had no prior knowledge of what was going to happen in Egypt in January 2011. Point in fact, the views were divided within the U.S. administration on how to respond to such massive protests and that Obama was initially hoping that Mubarak  would respond positively to the protests and prepare the country for a peaceful transition to democracy. 

Obama failed to convince Mubarak  to resign on the evening of February 1, 2011. Mubarak in fact relinquished power nine days later under popular pressures and the neutral position taken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Accounts of what was happening in Egypt point to those who took the initiative of calling for protests on January 25, 2011 as the force majeure behind the change—and none of them was in the pay of U.S. agencies. 

As for presumed U.S. sympathy with and for the Muslim Brotherhood, the available evidence suggests to the contrary. The early hesitation to support the secular, grassroots movements for change was in fact due to the apprehension by senior members of the Obama administration that given the inexperience and lack of solid organization in the ranks of these forces, the revolution would pave the way for dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the United States as well as European countries had to acquiesce to the dominant position of the Muslim Brotherhood since they won all the electoral consultations that took place between March 2011 and June 2012, and there was no secular movement capable of challenging them through the ballot box.  

The opposition by Western governments, including the United States, to the new post-June 2013 government in Egypt, was taken by “Conspiracy Theorists” to be another indication of the US taking the side of the Brotherhood. They viewed such events as a popular revolution supported by the armed forces. 

On the other hand, given the crucial part played by the army in these events, and the reality of power in Egypt since July 3, 2013, it should be easy to understand why U.S. and European public opinion considered the end of the Morsi government to be  a setback of the January Revolution bringing the country back under military rule. The Obama administration, however, resisted pressures to label the events of June-July 2013 as a military coup d’état, which, according to U.S. laws, would have led to the cessation of all military assistance to Egypt. It only suspended the release of certain weapons and resumed full military assistance once the country presumably got an elected president in 2014 and an elected parliament in 2015. 

Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid is a professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University. He has also taught at the American University in Cairo, as well as Harvard and Colgate universities in the United States. Al-Sayyid spent time as a visiting scholar at UCLA and a research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has published works in English, Arabic and French on issues of civil society, democratization and politics of development in the Middle East.
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