US policy on Egypt prepares for a protracted state of chaos

From Egypt to China, Afghanistan to Cambodia, America's foreign policy machine has no choice but to adapt.

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Intercontinental travel is confusing at the best of times, but spare a thought for Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who is on an eight-country tour taking in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Although she is probably used to the diplomatic carousel by now, this trip is even more confusing as the problems she has to deal with rarely coincide with the country she happens to be passing through.

In Paris she was talking about Syria; next stop Japan, where the topic was Afghanistan; then to Mongolia, where she gave a speech on China, a country she was not visiting. Then to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to reassure regional leaders that Washington's decision to "pivot" its national security effort to Asia does not mean that the Pentagon is about to lay waste to their countries as it had done to Iraq.

Finally, Mrs Clinton will pitch up in Cairo on Sunday, in an attempt to reset the relationship after the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who had been a central figure in American diplomatic and security calculations.

It is not so fashionable to visit Cairo these days: there is no political mileage in a photo opportunity in Tahrir Square. No one is quite sure what to make of the new president, Mohammed Morsi, a somewhat accidental figure (other, stronger candidates were disqualified from the election) who was fairly elected but still lacks a resounding democratic mandate for the challenges he faces.

At the same time, all kinds of dire scenarios are being propounded about what the army intends to do next. In February last year, the generals kept ahead of the curve, easing out Mubarak when it was clear he had to go and then posing as the guardians of the revolution. Since then, they have appeared as the focus of counter-revolution, trying to retain their power and privileges while stripping the incoming civilian government of real power.

It is good that Mrs Clinton is going to meet Mr Morsi rather than let him twist in the wind. He needs American recognition that he, not the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is in charge of Egypt. This will give a boost to the pragmatic elements in the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

While in Vietnam, Mrs Clinton set the tone of her visit to Egypt by stressing that democracy was not just about elections. It was about "inclusive political dialogue" and "good relations between civilian officials and military officials", she said. Clearly she does not want to arrive in Cairo for Act Three of the revolution drama, where the army and the Muslim Brotherhood fight it out on the streets.

It would be fascinating to read the briefing notes prepared for Mrs Clinton to meet the new president of this pivotal country of the Arab world. In situations like these, analysts like to reach for a historic parallel that supposedly adds clarity to a confused situation, but actually may just compound the existing errors of comprehension. Are we back in Egypt in 1954, when the Free Officers, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the monarchy and opted for long-term military rule rather than democracy? Or is this Algeria in 1991, where the army stopped the Islamist party from winning an election, thus plunging the country into a civil war that killed more than 100,000? Or are we in Turkey where the army repeatedly intervened to oust democratic governments when they failed - in the eyes of the military - to adhere to the line of Ataturk?

The answer must be none of the above. Egypt's generals are not driven by Nasser's ideological fervour to rid the country of the old regime: they are the old regime, and they want to preserve their perks and influence, which is an issue to be resolved over time. As for comparison with Algeria, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for all the nightmares they may conjure up in the United States and Saudi Arabia, are officially reconciled to democracy. They know the majority of the Egyptian people are not partisan and just want honest and competent rule.

As for Turkey, the parallel does not fit for two complementary reasons: an optimist would say life moves faster these days and Egypt does not have to spend decades reinventing the "Turkish model" of Islamist-tinged democracy. A pessimist would argue that Turkish democracy developed thanks to Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union, and the deep influence that exerted on the country's laws and the boost it gave to its economy. Such influence is much weaker in Egypt.

Since Mrs Clinton is coming from Asia, the model that seems most attractive is Indonesia. Like Egypt, it had a democratic revolution in 1989, following a disastrous economic crash, in which the US-aligned military was ousted from power. Despite some tensions with the Christian minority, democracy has generally thrived, thanks to a flourishing economy blessed with abundant natural resources including oil, gas and metals, ample farmland, and an educated workforce.

Why shouldn't Egypt follow the same path as the world's most populous Muslim state? Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons. Egypt has no reserve of farmland and relies on food imports; its workforce is less productive - Egyptian literacy rates are similar to Yemen's - and its economy is heavily reliant on tourism and foreign investment, both of which are scared off by instability. With currency reserves fast running out and a trade deficit of $3.5 billion (Dh12.9 billion) a month, it is hard to predict an Indonesian outcome for Egypt. But neither is an Algeria-style nightmare likely.

When she lands in Cairo, Mrs Clinton will be prepared for a situation with no quick fixes, and a messy jostle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army that could last a decade or more. Both sides know that hunger, or at least bread riots, are a more likely scenario than any of the sunny uplands or hellish descents that are commonly predicted. And both sides should know that the Egyptian people will not forgive them if they put politicking above the economy.

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