UAE and USA: Partners in Stability

Anna Quinn, Loyola:

Over the past few years, the world has watched as Egypt has undergone a significant amount of change. First, Egyptians and the global community alike witnessed as Hosni Mubarak, the country’s President of almost 30 years, stepped down in 2011 after 18 days of protests against his regime. Then, after a brief interim government, Egypt held its first democratic elections to place Muhammad Morsi—a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood—in power. After only a year with Morsi in office, the Egyptians rose once again in protest, eventually resulting in a coup d’état that would name military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as the new president.

Although much of the world was disappointed in Egypt’s short-lived experiment with democracy, it became clear that a large amount of the Arab world supported this most recent shift in power. One of the largest supporters was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who even established an “Egypt Task Force” within their own country to send funding and aid to stabilize the new government of President al-Sisi. However, as of recent, the role the UAE played in Morsi’s deposal was not completely known to the public.

This past Sunday, an Islamist news outlet in Istanbul called Mekamelin TV, released audio recordings of conversations between senior Egyptian and UAE officials that seem to suggest the UAE and Egyptian government had, in fact, played a very active role in Morsi’s removal. According to Daily News Egypt, the recordings show conversations between UAE’s Minister of State Sultan Al-Jaber, former military spokesperson Ahmed Ali, Defense Minister General Sedki Sobhy and Egypt’s Head of the Presidential Office Major-General Abbas Kamel. The officials discuss a bank account that was being used by Tamarod—a movement that called for the protests of June 2013 against Morsi. The UAE apparently sent a large amount of funding to help Tamarod and also directly to the Egyptian Defense Ministry. Although the military stated that these recordings are fabricated, The New York Times reports that many Egyptian commentators are treating them as credible. In addition, Mohamed Hassaneien Heikal, a historian and journalist close to the senior defense officials, said in a TV interview that it is not surprising that these tapes would have been made during that time. If these recordings are in fact real, it would mean that the UAE went far beyond simply supporting the ousting of Morsi—they had a hand in making it happen.

The question arises as to why the UAE so fiercely aided Egypt in its coup d’état. The answer is a long one, and begins before the UAE was even officially a country. According to Al-Monitor, beginning in the early 1970s, Egyptian Islamists migrated to what would be the UAE in search of both economic opportunities and freedom from anti-Muslim Brotherhood crackdowns in their own nation. This large immigrant population impacted the UAE in a variety of ways, one being the formation of al-Islah, an Emirati Islamist group that aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the next 30 or so years, says Al-Monitor, the UAE government became more and more uncomfortable with the harsh rhetoric and programs of al-Islah, especially when it was discovered that UAE al-Islah members were involved in the 9/11 attacks. As a response, the government increasingly began restricting their activities within the country, and formed their foreign policy along similar lines. Recognizing the pivotal role Egypt plays in the Arab world, for instance, the UAE devotes a lot of its effort and money to preventing an Islamist government in the country that they believe could turn into “an Islamist threat to the UAE.” Ultimately, their foreign policy towards Egypt centers on “a desire for stability and continuation of the status quo, rather than unpredictability or upheaval”—even if that means supporting an authoritative leader or halting democracy. For this reason, they were against the initial protests in 2011 that caused Mubarak to step down, as they predicted a democratic system could lead to a pro-Islamist government. This is also the reason they acted in support of the ousting of Morsi in 2013, as he, like they predicted, was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and highly pro-Islamist.

According to Al-Monitor, “the argument has been floated that Emirati aid and support for the new Egyptian government ought to be conditional upon certain reforms.” Some conditions cited were economic, judicial, security and human rights reforms. However, the UAE has made it clear that they are “unwilling” to demand these conditions, stating that they “would add little or no benefit to Cairo’s ability to stabilize, at least in the short or medium term.” It is therefore clear from Al-Monitor’s report that the UAE has chosen stability over principle. In other words, they are willing to perpetuate the status quo even if it means human rights and other abuses of power—simply to prevent potential conflict.

Many may balk at the UAE’s apparent indifference towards bettering the lives of Egyptians and the progress of the nation. In fact, Al-Monitor reports that several Western human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and research institutions don’t agree with the UAE’s strategy. Human Rights Watch, for instance, has reported in reference to the UAE’s goals in Egypt and at home that “the short-term convenience of some influential powers—suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood—threatens a long-term debacle for the region’s political future.”

It is important, however, to recognize that this approach is reflected in many of the same Western nations that oppose the UAE’s tactics—some could say especially in the United States. In their Washington Quarterly article, for instance, Colin H. Kahl and Marc Lynch, both professors of Political Science, discuss the US’s strategy to the Arab world. They assert that the US has a history of “embracing dictatorship in the name of stability”—a method that sounds almost identical to that proposed by the UAE.

There is a distinct difference between the UAE’s and the US’s strategies, however. While the UAE clearly makes their goals known to the global community, the US’s foreign policy rhetoric often directly contradicts their actual policy strategy. The US champions democratic progress and human rights, while often aiding and allying with those who are their biggest abusers. For instance, Kahn and Lynch use the example of the Bush Doctrine, more specifically its execution in the Gaza Strip. They write, “the Bush administration failed to match its bold words on democracy with meaningful support for democratic change, retreating as soon as Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections to a more traditional embrace of friendly Arab dictators.”

While the Bush Doctrine is perhaps the best example of the US’s rhetoric of putting principle over stability and acting in a contradictory way, this strategy doesn’t seem to be president-specific. In a more recent and maybe more relevant example, the US has a long history of providing military aid and support for the Egyptian military. Like the UAE, the US government supported the coup that placed al-Sisi in power. As the Wall Street Journal noted in June 2014, the US decided to “continue the flow of military aid in an American welcome of the post-coup government.” Even though, according to the New York Times, the military and its officials within the government are clearly what are keeping the country from successfully implementing democracy. It is clear in both of these cases that the US supports democracy in principle, but perhaps only when its elections result in a government that remains favorable to the US’s goals. With that in mind, the US has evidently chosen the same path as the UAE, that of least resistance to result in stability and favorable relations. However, it is clear that the US’s choice may come at a greater cost—a subordination of its democratic principles in the name of different objectives.

While we can argue to which extent the US should be actively promoting democracy abroad, not many would disagree that the government’s foreign policy strategy should align with the country’s values. Of course, the goal of stability and favorable relations is a valid one, but perhaps it should be pursued in a manner that is commensurate with the country’s larger principles. It should not go unrecognized as well that Egypt’s short experience with democratic elections resulted in what Fareed Zakaria might call an “illiberal democracy.” In other words, despite the practice of democratic elections, the government elected still failed to act as a complete “liberal democracy”—lacking presidential oversight and basic rights for all citizens, among other things. Therefore, while the US is not out of range of its values by not supporting Morsi’s government, supporting the backtracking of Egypt to yet another un-elected authoritarian ruler will not foster the progress the country needs to transition from a simple electoral democracy to a complete liberal democracy. As Kahn and Lynch put it, neither temporary instability nor potential friction, “outweighs the urgent reality that only meaningful political reforms will ensure long-term stability in this critical region.”

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