Was Clinton's Egypt visit a mistake?
July 31st, 2012
11:58 AM ET

Was Clinton's Egypt visit a mistake?

By Steven Cook, CFR

Editor’s note: Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of From the Potomac to the Euphrates originally appeared here. The views expressed are those of the author.

Longtime observers of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – both friendly and unfriendly – will attest to her intelligence, sense of humor, and unfailing grace. So it was a few weeks ago upon her arrival in Israel that she said she wasn’t offended by the way she was received during her visit to Egypt on July 14 and 15, saying that she only regretted “the wasted tomatoes.” The secretary of state was, of course, referring to the tomatoes that some Egyptians used to rain down on her motorcade when she arrived in Alexandria to open the new consulate in Egypt’s second city. Clinton’s quip deflected what was decidedly not an exemplar of Egyptians’ famous hospitality and downplayed the secretary’s curious visit to Egypt.

Arriving in Egypt during Clinton’s visit was like being transported into an alternate universe where reason and logic were either suspended or turned on their head. Everywhere I went, everyone with whom I spoke – with some notable exceptions – wanted to know why the United States, and specifically the secretary of state, supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

Huh? To be sure, this may have been a function of the way my schedule shook out as my first 24 hours were taken up with various coffees, meals, and meetings with felool, Copts, so-called liberals, and business honchos. It was clear to them that Ahmed Shafiq had won the second round of the presidential election, but the chicanery of the Brothers together with the complicity of the United States and the weakness of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) conspired to make Mohamed Morsi the first civilian and Islamist president of Egypt.

It wasn’t just the outcome of the presidential election that fueled these suspicions – Morsi’s election capped a narrative about Washington’s alleged interest in the accumulation of Brotherhood power in Egypt. Why, my interlocutors asked, had Washington reached out to the Brotherhood a few months after Mubarak fell? It was apparently part of a plan. I had heard this kind of thing before during the height of the George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” when Egyptian officials asked why the United States sought to change the “character of the regime” in favor of the Brothers.

Secretary Clinton’s statement to the effect that Washington would like to see a “full transition to civilian rule,” the emergence of democratic institutions, and the military’s return to a “purely national security role” was further evidence that the United States, after three decades of quietly supporting President Hosni Mubarak’s repression of the Brothers (as well as a variety of other groups both rather nasty and benign), had flipped.

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Clinton’s statement was about the importance of democratic governance without endorsing any one group in particular, but her critics seized on it as an affront to them and the armed forces, which is now regarded, a la once upon a time in Turkey, as the guarantor against further Islamization of politics and society. This isn’t to suggest that these groups, especially the Copts whose leaders refused to meet with Secretary Clinton, have nothing to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood, but the implication that the United States has actively abetted the rise of the Brotherhood since Mubarak’s fall doesn’t conform to reality. There are, indeed, few places where the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and Washington overlap. As I wrote in late June, it’s unlikely that there will be a breach in U.S.-Egypt relations. But the relationship is bound to be more complicated than it was under Mubarak. Incidentally, this isn’t a function of “Islamist politics,” but rather politics in Egypt’s relatively more open society.

The only respite from the “Hillary ♥ the MB” was my encounter with members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party who asked me why the United States, especially the secretary of state, supports the SCAF.  The Brothers actually have a stronger case for distrusting Washington given its generous financial support to the Egyptian Armed Forces since the early 1980s. Still, the whole experience, while not entirely unexpected, bordered on the absurd.

Secretary Clinton’s chilly reception in Egypt – she also confronted nasty protesters at her Cairo hotel – leads one to wonder why she went in the first place.  To be fair to Clinton’s team, it’s hard to know when protests are going to break out, and hindsight is 20-20, but it wasn’t all that difficult to understand that there were some serious downsides to her visit.

Were the messages that the secretary carried about the importance of a democratic transition, the value of bilateral ties, and the significance that Washington attaches to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty worth the trouble?  Well before Mubarak’s fall, the United States had become a significant and negative factor in Egypt’s domestic politics. Add to this sentiment the fact that the January 25 uprising was about national empowerment and dignity, and observers can understand why trust and goodwill toward the United States are in short supply in Egypt. As a result, the secretary’s meetings with Egypt’s new president and Field Marshal Tantawi, but not with the opposition, were bound to run into a buzz saw of conspiracy mongering and hostility. The whole episode had the effect of adding uncertainty to an already murky and tension-filled political environment.

I hope Clinton’s visit achieved its desired goals, but had policymakers had a better appreciation of how the dynamics of the U.S.-Egypt relationship play out in Egyptian domestic politics, they may have left it to Deputy Secretary of State William Burns – who visited Egypt a few weeks before Clinton – to be the bearer of the various messages Washington wanted to send Cairo.

I understand the symbolic difference between a visit from the American Secretary of State and her number two and I’m not saying that the visit was not paved with good intentions. But outside the Ministry of Defense and the presidential palace it looked like precisely the opposite.

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Topics: Egypt • Middle East • United States

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Indra

    Trying to scare the new democracy, into making concessions to Israel, or loosing their US aid money...

    July 31, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • nina

      Let it said that you Indra would not want to make peace.

      July 31, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Hilary Clinton did the right thing to travel to Cario. She was wise enough not to prejudge the Muslim Brotherhood and is trying to build a relationship with the new president Morsi. Give Morsi and the MB a chance and see how Egypt under a new government turns out. A rapprochement brings more than just prejudice and stubbornness.

        July 31, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Jeff

      Maintaining a 30 year-old peace treaty isn't "making a concession."

      August 3, 2012 at 1:19 am | Reply
  2. Sarah

    Clinton went to Egypt to show her support to Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood because the USA paid off the military to ensure they rule Egypt. Clinton going just made it more clear which side they are on.

    Clinton and the Obama administration and Obama himself represent America in a very negative and dangerous way to the middle eastern world. The USA was behind getting Morsi and the muslim brotherhood to rule Egypt so they can have the control they want over the region. It is evident that a free, democratic Egypt is not in the best interest of Americans. The way the USA got involved behind closed doors by paying off the military to make sure that the muslim brotherhood wins elections and then going to meet with Morsi is the biggest indication of how the USA is playing this game.

    I am so proud that the Coptic Christians in Egypt are smart enough to understand the USA agenda and refused to meet with Clinton. Obama needs to know that supporting extreme Islam like the muslim brotherhood just because his father was Muslim is wrong!! Obama and his administration are all criminals.

    July 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • sarah

      The MB are not "extreme islamists" as you claim. You dont have to agree with their views on politics but that's a dangerous statement youre making.

      July 31, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
      • Sarah

        LOL. Muslim Brotherhood are not extreme! Yes they are!!

        July 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  3. Sarah

    By the way, it is very clear that Isreal is also very happy that the Muslim brotherhood took control of Egypt. This means Isreal will have a very good excuse to go to war against Egypt and now is the best time to do that since Egypt is weak and fragile. I just hope the world sees how every country out there does NOT have the best interest of Egypt at heart. Just because they cheared us on for going after our freedom doesn't mean they don't want to benefit from the weak transition Egypt is in. Wake up Egypt and focus on building your country. God bless Egypt!!

    July 31, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • sarah

      oh my God, youre analysis is crap. stop talking

      July 31, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
      • Sarah

        Saying it's a crapy analysis is not really a useful response. Why is it crappy? I hope I am wrong. But why is Isreal happy that the Muslim Brotherhood took over?

        July 31, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
      • nina

        The evil Sara knows that the MB is evil but as part of the advance force, she/he/it has to try and sway American minds.
        Go back to Egyptn Sara because Americans are well aware that the MB is evil. Just wait and see what they are going to do to your beloved country.

        August 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Ahmad

      Wow. All I can say is I can no longer just roll my eyes at stupid conspiracy theories subscribed to and propagated by Egyptians in general, and against the US in particular. Get over yourselves my fellow egyptians, the US has no horse in this race in particular despite whatever flimsy motivations you can chalk up (I wont even comment on the hilarious Israel connection, my brain hurts just trying to find the logic there), I heard from a respectable egyptian that it was all part of their secret shia/ sunni agenda in supporting someone who will take the proxy holy war to the next step on the US behalf like we were back in '79 with Iran-Iraq. Conspiracy theorists in our country were the ones who took conservative right wing pundits equally unfounded theories against the brotherhood and US foreign policy seriously and bought the whole mess, embaressing Egyptians everywhere with their overdone reaction to clintons visit... its weakness and a relic of the Mubarak regime to search for straw men everywhere and pretend that you alone have the angles sorted, as the only semblance of political clarity and power in a time of political impotence.

      July 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
      • Sarah

        OK. I just want to have a logical explanation for why Israel is happy that the Muslim brotherhood took over. The reason this is what I thought is because the Muslim Brotherhood have put some Palestinians at the border of Sinai and the Israelis are now saying oh look they are firing at us. Israel can't wait to have an excuse to get Sinai back!! This is what I am worried about. I am glad that everyone thinks this is ridiculous because I really want to be wrong but what other explanations do you have?? If this is Israel’s motives then the international community needs to have its eyes wide open and look closely at what's going on to prevent war. I just hope I am coming up with unfounded ridiculous theories like everyone thinks but it seems like no one is paying attention to that at all and I am worried and I know a lot of fellow Egyptians who are extremely worried about tension with Israel. I just think it's prudent that we don't just discount this as ridiculous and that the international community pays attention to the US and Israeli motives and politics. Egypt is in a very fragile state right now and I am just worried but I hope that I am wrong and that there is really no reason to worry.

        July 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Jeff

      You're an idiot. Israel is not at all "happy that the MB took over Egypt..." just the opposite, they're absolutely furious at Obama for letting Mubarak go down because the last thing they needed while having to deal with the Iranian nuclear program was having to worry about religious fanatics taking over Egypt and threatening to kill the peace treaty. I will never understand the propensity of Arabs for blatantly stupid conspiracy theories. Learn to stop embarrassing yourselves.

      August 3, 2012 at 1:36 am | Reply
      • Sarah

        OK Jeff. I don't usually cave in to all the conspiracy theories but I do think if any country has any benefit in attacking Egypt then now would be the best time. Israel only needs an excuse to do that and the USA will help especially if the honey moon period with the USA and the Muslim Brotherhood ends. I do think Israel is scared that the Muslim Brotherhood took over because of their extreme views but at the same time Israel is getting ready to fight back if anything happens. In fact, Israel would be stupid not to be/act defensive at this point. I am not saying they will attack for no reason but they will certainly be ready and use anything as a reason to call USA for help at any time. I am not sure it's such an idiotic theory. Also, it's ignorant to say there is no tension between Egypt and Israel!! Just a few months ago, ignorant Egyptians went and attacked the Israeli Embassy in Egypt. The tensions are there and are rising since Muslim brotherhood took over. "A theory" about the fear of war is not that idiotic in my opinion. I do think that the international community should pay close attention to this because Egypt and most of the Middle East is in a state of extreme unrest. That's the only point I wanted to get across.

        August 3, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  4. Sarah

    Steven Cook – your views are respected but I disagree 100% that any of the USA intentions are good. That is a naïve and ignorant remark in my opinion. The only intention the USA has is to ensure they remain a world power. The way the USA has always ensured they remain a world power is by ensuring every other country remains weak. So, instead of supporting democracy across the world, they support the opposite by standing behind extreme Muslims around the world, fighting wars and destroying peace and freedom in the struggling countries. Then ignorant and naïve people wonder why the world hates America. It's really sad that Americans are completely brain washed to believe propaganda.

    Spreading propaganda doesn't make it reality – by saying America went to war against Iraq to free Iraq is the perfect example of dangerous propaganda. What the USA did is they went in and destroyed everything beautiful in Iraq – took away peace, and killed the Christians in Iraq. Bush and the Bush Administration had proof that said there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq yet they still chose to go to war. Why? Is it to free Iraq? No, of course not!! They did this to ensure Iraq remains weak because America hired Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq and they were paying him off to do what’s in the best interest of America. When Saddam Hussein refused to be an American puppet, America decided they will go into Iraq, kill him and destroy his country. They did this while making the poor naïve Americans feel good about what they were doing by telling them we went in with the intention to free Iraq. Really? Come on Americans, are you really that naïve and ignorant? Bush and the Bush administration should be punished as criminals of war and if the Americans weren't able to do that to their own criminals then the UN should step in and do something and put those people behind bars for all the innocent (both American and non-American) lives they destroyed.

    The propaganda that says America went to free Iraq is the same propaganda that Mr. Steve Cook is trying to present now. He is saying that America supports the people in Egypt that wanted freedom and justice by going to support and shake hands with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. By the Muslim Brotherhood having control over Egypt ensures that Egypt remains under the poverty line, remain uneducated and without any hope for freedom or social justice. America knows and understands that very well. In fact, America prefers a weak Egypt that is poor, corrupt and uneducated because they can easily continue to pay off its leaders to ensure American interests are met. And Steven Cook – you wonder why the Egyptians hate America??? Really? Are you that naïve or did the propaganda your own country is feeding you is finally getting to you? And Clinton expected to be welcomed with open arms – how stupid of Clinton and the Obama administration. I just wonder what will happen when Morsi and the Egyptian Military decide they no longer want to be American puppets. Will the USA go in and destroy Egypt? Egypt has no hope now but God.

    July 31, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • Michelle

      That's exactly why Hillary has her secret weapon: Huma Abedin!

      August 1, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
  5. John F. Phillips

    The United States is doing what it perceives to be in its national interests by playing both sides against the middle. It is not yet clear who is ultimately going to control Egypt. I have many Egyptian friends and they seem to be evenly divided in terms of what they think the ultimate outcome is going to be. In terms of its own national interests, it is prudent for the United States to keep all of its options open. All countries do this. To bet on one side or the other would be risky policy at this point.

    July 31, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  6. Sarah

    To: John Phillips – The USA has already picked the side they want which I agree is very dangerous. They picked the Muslim Brotherhood and the Military. Both of which are corrupt and the USA understands that very well. USA is not interested in what's best for the Egyptian people so stop saying that. The USA ultimately only cares about its own interests and I agree that every country is the same way. We just need honest, straight talk. I also think it's ultimately wrong to say one thing and do another thing – which is exactly what America is doing now and it's really ugly and dangerous.

    July 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  7. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Nothing suprising about the Obama admin's tilt in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood given the large scale infiltration by MB supporters in the WH incl:

    – CAIR – an outfit of the Muslim Brotherhood
    – Mr.Fareed Zakaria – Obama's ext.advisor & his chief strategist who has said "America is the real threat to the world and NOT Islamic radicals."
    – Huma Abeid – Dy.Chief of Staff at the State Dept., with well known links to the Brotherhood
    – Rashad Hussain- US Ambassador to the OIC and well known defender of MB radicals
    – Imam Rauf – US Goodwill Ambassador to the Muslim World and someone who says America deserved 9/11 & more!
    And many many more in the Obama admin, liberal media, leading US Think-Tanks, Academia etc.

    If Mr. Fareed Zakaria indeed becomes the next US Sec.of State as it's strongly rumored to if Obama gets relected, the infiltration by the MB and their sympathizers in the US Govt. will be complete.


    July 31, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  8. Quigley

    I wonder if Hilary Clinton threatened this Mohammed Morsy into continue taking orders from Washington D.C. or did she try to bribe him behind the scenes? I guess that we'll never know! As usual, she displayed her unmitigated arrogance and self righteousness!

    July 31, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  9. Dina

    I think you make the mistake of assuming a somewhat democratic election means a democratic country. Democracy could lead to a KKK member being president, but it doesn't mean we should call and congratulate him and see hey democracy won.

    July 31, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Reply
    • nina

      Well Dina, you will find that 20 years from now, Egypt will have a dictator and the people will suffer.
      The MBO will become frustrated with an unresponsive, complicated internal system.
      They will start by bypassing all the steps in any action and just do what they think they need to do.
      They will lie to their muslim hard a$$es and make peace with Israel or they will become Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran.
      If they do not know now, they will quickly learn who are the ones creating problems and will create their own militia to address these problems.Typically, the muslim world happily goes along believing that if a crime is not reported, it does not count.
      The MBO will learn how to pay its own through theft and cohersion.
      Same old, same old.

      July 31, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  10. Jaybird

    Hilary Clinton would far better serve this country by staying home and stop vomiting out her self righteousness opinion against world leaders she doesn't like. Her trying to strong-arm other countries into participating in the so-called "economic sanctions" against Iran is truly nauseating and a horrific disgrace to America!!!

    July 31, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  11. Toppolina

    Mrs. Clinton's visit was most definitely her worst diplomatic endeavor. It will be the darkest spot on her illustrious career. She fails to understand that the Middle East is not the USA and democracy cannot be applied overnight. She knows that Mursy wable wes shoved down the throat of the majority of the Egyptians by the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar who think in their narrow mind that they can fight Iran by having Islamists rule Arab countries. Mrs. Clinton needs to have better advice and may be better consultants in fields she fails to understand. Egyptians are famous for their hospitality but obviously Mrs. Clinton was NOT welcome in Egypt after her interference with their domestic policy. She asked for it, and she GOT IT

    August 1, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
  12. nina

    All Palestinian groups were founded with the declared aim of destroying Israel by violence, and had a history of terrorist activities. Only the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) renounced this aim officially. In 1993, the PLO signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles, renouncing violence and agreeing to honor UN SC Resolution 242, which implicitly recognizes the right of Israel to exist. In return, Israel allowed the PLO to enter the West Bank and Gaza strip, and Palestinians gained autonomous control of most of the population of these areas. Extremist Palestinian groups that objected to the agreements began a campaign of ambushes and suicide bombings against Israel. The Palestine National Authority claimed they could not control the dissident groups. Final status negotiations faltered in September 2000. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple mount (Haram as Sharif), which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque on September 28, though he did not enter either of the mosques.. This ignited violent riots, that were met with lethal force by the IDF. The violence became generalized "resistance," called "the Intifadeh," and involving large sectors of the population as well as the Palestine National Authority itself, and the Palestinian police force set up by the Oslo agreements. Polls indicate that about half the Palestinians believe that the aim of the Intifadeh is to destroy Israel. Since September 28, 2000, Palestinians have killed over a thousand Israelis in terror and suicide attacks. Israelis have killed over 3,500 Palestinians in "defense" operations and reprisals, including many civilians. The Intifadeh destroyed the belief of many Israelis in the possibility of peace, and destroyed the credibility of Yasser Arafat and the PLO as peace partners.

    August 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  13. nina


    August 1, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  14. Aaron Chaney

    Romney vs. Frankenstein (Obama)

    Put simply, better the devil you don't know. Vote Romney.

    August 2, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
  15. ibra

    islamic principles is inevitable like the sun shines the world no one can conceal it is light morsi will join the likes of iran and syria who are the only two in the arab WORLD who dared to stand against the evil USA(A BIG DOG), and western countries who are its(SMALL PUPPIES)

    August 18, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply

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