Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, who was pushed out due in no small part to having lost the support of the American government, was recently found innocent by an Egyptian court for his role in the deaths of hundreds of protesters who took to the streets in 2011 to demand his ouster. Following elections, Mubarak was replaced by Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, who also subsequently lost America’s backing and was himself forced out in a military coup.
When asked about Mubarak’s exoneration, State Department Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki offered a rambling non-answer which did not fool the diplomatic press corps one bit. When Associated Press reporter Matt Lee called Psaki out for essentially saying “nothing,” Psaki gave it another try.
“Generally, we continue to believe that upholding impartial standards of accountability will advance the political consensus on which Egypt’s long-term stability and economic growth depends,” she said. “I don’t have any more specifics on this.”
“Wow, I don’t understand that at all,” Lee replied. He suggested that Psaki should “push” within State Department a bit harder for a response to this development, especially considering how frequently Psaki calls for transparency within foreign governments.
“If there is more we have to say, Matt, we will make sure you all know,” Psaki replied dismissively.
“What you said says nothing,” Lee observed. “It’s like saying, ‘we support the right of people to breathe.’”
He might have hit a nerve. As the lights went down in the briefing room, a hot mic caught the State Department spokeswoman acknowledging that she had, in fact, said nothing. “That Egypt line is ridiculous,” Psaki conceded.
Video via the Washington Free Beacon:
She and Lee are right. Those lines were silly pablum; milquetoast filler designed to state a hungry press corps without making any waves. Psaki’s statement might indicate that, after years of developing the wrong policy approach toward the most populous Arab nation on Earth and the guardian of the Suez Canal, the White House has given up on having any Egypt policy at all.
If so, that would be a dangerous course for the United States to take; particularly considering that Egypt’s new military ruler, President Abel Fattah al-Sisi, has begun to alienate both Egypt’s restless youth as well as influential members of key institutions like the military. That would be a disturbing development in isolation, but it is even more alarming given that the Islamic State is gaining a foothold in that country.
Analysts now fear that the group may have sympathizers in the Egyptian military’s ranks. Since Sisi’s coup, a significant number of military officers has defected and joined radical groups. According to the Egyptian media, a devastating attack against the military checkpoint in Sinai last October, which killed 31 soldiers and injured many others, was planned and executed by two former army officers, Emad Abdel Halim and Hesham Ashmawy. There has also been speculation that a defected navy officer was involved in a recent Ansar Beit al-Maqdis assault on an Egyptian ship in the Mediterranean that left five navy officers injured and eight missing. And according to a recent New York Times report, [The ISIS-linked group] Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is believed to be recruiting informants who know intimate details about the army’s deployments. Such leaks could prove devastating, ushering a new era of insurgency that could haunt Egypt for years to come.
“The new jihadist alliance is a disaster for Washington as well as Cairo,” the dispatch continued. “For one thing, it is proof positive that ISIS has been able to use its victories in Iraq and Syria to attract new followers and continued support outside the Levant—despite the fact that it is facing the fury of a U.S.-led air campaign.”
“Egypt, moreover, home to such veteran jihadists as al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri (who despite his best efforts, has never been able to establish a foothold there), has become a full-fledged area of ISIS operations,” al-Anani warned. “For the group’s leaders, Egypt plays a central role in its vision of an Islamic caliphate, not only because of the country’s political and cultural stature in the Arab world, but also because of its borders with Israel. Further attacks on the Jewish state could help ISIS legitimize its operations and enhance its popularity among Egyptians.”
It is understandable for the administration to be increasingly confused by a country that has confounded them several times in the past, but that does not give them license to give up on Egypt altogether. With the stakes high, not merely due to ISIS’s infiltration but Russia’s ongoing effort to reverse Anwar Sadat’s Cold War decision to reorient his country toward America, the United States had better develop a comprehensive Egypt policy soon.