What is Obama’s strategy in Egypt?

The president is keen to avoid “meddling”, but US interests go far wider than the next Egyptian lead

Regime change: as unpredictable as it is uncertain. And as White House officials discuss the options for a post-Mubarak regime, questions are being raised over President Obama's strategy and the speed of his response.

This isn't just a question of making policy on the hoof as fast-moving events in Egypt leave the administration running to catch up. It's a question of values: of intervention, of autonomy, of the best way of fostering democracy and stability in the Middle East.

There's been much trawling through the principles that President Obama outlined in his Cairo speech in 2009, when he reached out a hand to the Muslim world. Back then, the chief lesson Obama had learned from Iraq was that too much US interference would prove supremely counterproductive – though he was also keen to champion his core values, warning dictators that "suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away". In June that same year, Obama resisted pressure to back protesters in Iran after its disputed presidential elections, saying it would not be productive to be "seen as meddling".

All this was a deliberate reversal of the Bush freedom agenda of trying to spread US-style democracy throughout the region. Repression and tyranny, Bush believed, bred radicalism and instability. The answer lay in free elections. And it was his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who put all this in context, in her Cairo speech in 2005. Sixty years of realism in US foreign policy, she argued, had created neither democracy nor stability. "Now we are taking a different course," she said. "We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Democracy, however, won't always give you the results you want. As Caroline Glick put it in the Jerusalem Post: "Bush's belief was based on a narcissistic view of western values as universal."

In reality, given the choice, the Palestinians voted Hamas into power. Lebanon ended up with Hezbollah. Iraq – well, let's not go into Iraq. And an insight about where Egypt might be heading was revealed in a Pew survey last October which showed that 59 per cent of Egyptians supported Islamists, half backed Hamas and some 20 per cent supported al-Qaeda.

Hence the dilemma. There will be regime change in Egypt, no matter what, and the White House is pledged to "let the Egyptian people decide" what happens next.

There's no shortage of advice for the White House. Michael Rubin, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that if the US doesn't find a way to empower secular leaders in the region "we will create a vacuum that the Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood will fill, which, given the scars of the Iranian Revolution, remains our biggest fear", And, he added:

The irony is that if Condi Rice and the Bush administration hadn't walked away from the "Arab spring" in 2005 before it had a chance to bloom, we would have a lot more leverage right now to channel these popular protests.

In the absence of any obvious liberal oppostion in Cairo, the US is weighing its options. Joe Biden has been talking to his new Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman, about the transition. Meanwhile, the US Senate has just approved John McCain and John Kerry's call for Hosni Mubarak to transfer power immediately to an inclusive caretaker government, followed by moves towards free and fair elections later this year.

It is pushing Obama far futher towards that interventionist strategy he was so keen to avoid. But although he has been criticised for being late in the game – and by NBC's Andrea Mitchell of being "lumbering . . . passive and reactive" – American interests go far wider than the next Egyptian leader. There's the small matter of Middle East stability to consider.

In the long game of diplomacy, it's surely better to act with intelligence and subtlety than conduct policy through a giant megaphone.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.

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Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn than Smith

The week in the media, including Cambridge entrance exams, the Brexit tourism boom, and why Owen Smith is a no-hoper.

A woman canvassing for Jeremy Corbyn called me the other day. I explained to her that I would be voting for Owen Smith as Labour leader – as long as he seemed to have no chance of winning. She sounded bemused but, after I explained my reasoning, I think she agreed, although she may simply have decided to humour a feeble-minded eccentric.

I told her that my objection to Corbyn is not so much about his political position as about his competence as leader. If he cannot command the confidence of Labour MPs, he is unlikely to command the confidence of voters that he can run the country. However, Labour needs a more convincing alternative than Owen Smith, a soft-left figure in the mould of Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, who lost three general elections between them. As his proposal that we should sit down and talk to Islamic State suggests, his ear for politics, like that of the incumbent leader, appears to be manufactured from tin. Moreover, his past as a lobbyist for a drugs company represents precisely the bundle of connections between politics, media and international capital against which so many voters are in revolt.

Smith deserves a large vote, mainly to give heart to future challengers. But – given that no party has ever overthrown two leaders in a single parliament without either having fought a general election – his victory would leave the party with the prospect of nearly four wasted years followed by defeat in 2020. Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn. There is still time for him (or preferably her) to emerge.

Agent Choudary

It is widely believed in the Muslim community that the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary is an MI5 agent, whose high-profile flamboyance was used to attract and flush out the most dangerous radicals. Those who subscribe to this theory are not fazed by his conviction at the Old Bailey on terrorism-related charges. Although the prosecution detailed numerous instances in which people allegedly linked to him were convicted of planning violent attacks, nearly all such attacks failed, according to the theory, because Choudary did his job, allowing plotters to be apprehended before they could strike. Now MI5 has decided that he should continue his work in prisons, which are said to be increasingly potent sources of radicalisation.
I hesitate to scoff too much. Who would have thought that the Soviet security services could recruit several former public school boys in the 1930s and plant them in positions at the top of MI6 and the Foreign Office? We should not assume that our spymasters are incapable of being equally clever. Besides, the MI5 agent theory probably does Choudary far more damage among young Muslims than the media’s standard portrayal of him as an evil genius.

Apt pupils

A new hurdle, in the form of a university-wide exam to test “aptitude”, will confront applicants to Cambridge from this autumn. It illustrates why state schools can never hope to catch up, still less overtake, fee-charging schools in the race for elite university places (another manifestation of what the NS calls “the 7 per cent problem”).
Unlike its predecessor, which was abolished three decades ago because it was thought to favour those from privileged backgrounds, the new entrance exam, Cambridge argues, does not require coaching. The publication of sample questions shows that this is not true. Several are, in essence, exercises in logic, which comes naturally to a tiny minority but not to the majority who will need, if nothing else, a great deal of practice to achieve competence even at an elementary level. The better fee-charging schools will organise the necessary preparation for the dozen or so candidates each year who try to get into Cambridge. Comprehensives, with far more modest resources, will not do so for the one or two candidates they are likely to have even in a good year. Their teachers’ inferior knowledge of how the exam will be marked and what tutors will be looking for – matters on which Cambridge is unhelpfully vague – will further disadvantage state school candidates.

Stashing cash

I cannot think of a better example of what crazy times we live in than this. Keeping cash under the mattress used to be something that criminals and mentally impaired old folk did. Now, the Financial Times reports, banks and other financial institutions are thinking of doing it, although they will use vaults rather than mattresses. This is because interest rates are moving into negative territory, so private-sector banks are, in effect, charged for keeping cash in their central bank accounts. The FT estimates that banks have lost €2.64bn since European Central Bank rates became negative in 2014. Some pension funds have already asked their banks for wads of cash in €500 notes.
Could any satirist or futuristic novelist have envisaged this?

Foreign throngs

The Brexit vote and the subsequent fall in sterling’s value has led, it is reported, to a sharp increase in tourism. I thought of this as we struggled through people crammed into the excellent Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, the other day. Haworth is a tiny village (population 6,379) that was so poor two centuries ago that raw sewage ran down the main street. Now, it has created a flourishing industry from being the place where the Brontës’ novels were written. 

The prospects for British manufacturing and financial services may be uncertain but there’s always tourism, for which we seem to have an absolute gift. Even the damp, cold climate is an advantage, because it forces more people into the shops. But I wonder what the Brexiteers think of this growth in the number of foreigners, possibly including terrorist sympathisers, now walking our streets and thronging our museums, royal palaces and country houses. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser