Skip to main content

U.S gets it wrong on Egypt again

By Cynthia Schneider, Special to CNN
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Egyptian riot police stand guard as people protest against Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy in Cairo on December 29, 2012.
Egyptian riot police stand guard as people protest against Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy in Cairo on December 29, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • National protests against Morsy set for second anniversary of Egypt's revolution
  • Cynthia Schneider: U.S. out of step, underestimates the anti-Morsy sentiment
  • She says proponents of secular democracy think the U.S. backs Muslim Brotherhood
  • She says massive protests will show U.S. needs to align itself with the popular will

Editor's note: Cynthia Schneider is a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University; dean at the School of Diplomacy, Dubrovnik International University; and a senior nonresident fellow at Brookings Institution. She is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

(CNN) -- Protests planned around Egypt -- particularly in Cairo's Tahrir Square -- on the second anniversary of the January 25 revolution are expected to be an explosion of dissent, revealing the deep divisions in the country between President Mohamed Morsy and the Egyptian people.

Opposition to Morsy's authoritarianism is broader than the world recognizes. In making accommodations for Morsy's government, the United States is -- once again -- out of step with the Egyptian people.

Cynthia P. Schneider
Cynthia P. Schneider

Egyptians may not know exactly what they want, but they know what they don't want. Although an effective political opposition has yet to coalesce, Egyptians from all sectors of society are united in their refusal to accept another repressive regime.

Egypt is on a collision course. An ever growing, if periodically discouraged, portion of the population opposes the government and Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood, and supports the revolution's goals of social and economic justice, accountable government, and basic freedoms, including freedom of expression and protection of minorities. Yet the government is moving in exactly the opposite direction, with its authoritarian control over political, social, and religious life.

The government's investigation of the wildly popular "Egyptian Jon Stewart" Bassem Youssef -- charged with insulting Morsy and undermining his command -- and the forced "retirement" of respected journalist Hani Shukrallah, editor of state-owned Al-Ahram's English-language website, are just two very public examples of the vice tightening on freedom of expression.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In fact, the Arab Network for Human Rights says about 24 lawsuits for insulting Morsy have been filed against journalists and activists since his election in June.

The regime is trying to put the revolution genie back in the bottle. But it is clamping down on a population that has discovered its voice. In opposition to this repression, Egyptians at all levels are increasingly engaged in politics.

A Cairo cab driver -- ever the measure of popular sentiment -- recently debated the failings of the Constitution with a passenger. After reaching the destination, the driver leapt out, grabbed a dogeared copy of the Constitution he kept in the front seat, and pointed to a passage to prove his point to his passenger.

The December demonstrations against President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Constitution, which attracted an even broader segment of the population than those who stood in Tahrir Square in 2011, revealed the broadening chasm between the regime and the people in Egypt.

Anti-Morsy protesters rally in Cairo
Egypt opposition's post-referendum plans
Egyptians take to the polls

Assembled outside the Presidential Palace were old and young, veiled and unveiled, rich and poor. Whether they arrived in chauffeur-driven cars or whether they marched from Cairo's outlying shantytowns, the hundreds of thousands joined together in their refusal to accept a state that squashed the dreams of the revolution and dictated political, social, and religious behavior.

Many call the second wave of the revolution in the fall of 2012 the "Mothers' Revolution." Parents and grandparents went into the streets to protest the divided loyalties in their families between the Islamists (Brotherhood or Salafis) and those supporting a democratic, secular Egypt. In Egypt, secular means freedom from state control of religion, not nonreligious.

The clash between these two visions of Egypt -- secular with freedom and social justice, or a religious state run by the Brotherhood with its version of Sharia law -- played out inside families and on the streets.

Soldiers protecting the Presidential Palace during the December demonstrations were moved to tears when an Egyptian woman, referring to Morsy, shouted at them, "Why are you protecting this man who is pitting Egyptians against each other?"

Mohamed El Gindy, a successful businessman who opposes Morsy and spent much of December camping in Tahrir with the young revolutionaries, has experienced this division within families firsthand. A relative who had joined the Salafis informed him that the extreme Islamist group had put El Gindy at No. 5 on its "hit list," which is widely believed by Egyptians to exist. The relative was unapologetic until El Gindy told him that he might as well put El Gindy's mother on the list, too, since the octogenarian also had joined the street protests.

Egypt and its families may be divided, but on one subject, all are united -- in the belief that the United States is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

Visible in the throngs at the December demonstrations were signs opposing Qatar and the United States -- yes, the U.S. and Qatar were lumped together as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood regime.

"This is such a historic opportunity to restore the image of the U.S., but instead it is putting itself in the same position as Qatar. ... And this from President Obama -- so disappointing," Riham Bahi, a professor at American University in Cairo, said, reflecting views heard repeatedly last December in Egypt.

Opposition leader and blogger Bassem Sabry was even more blunt: "With the Constitution in play, you are subsidizing an Islamist state." Sabry said he was always pro-U.S. "until the revolution."

In addition, the Pentagon plans to proceed with the delivery of 20 F-16 jets to Egypt, a step that looks to Egyptians like a vote of confidence in Morsy. Unchanged since the revolution, U.S. aid policy toward Egypt still makes the military alliance its priority.

Two years after the Egyptian Revolution, the U.S. government finds itself again backing an authoritarian regime against the popular will. As January 25 approaches, with massive protests planned against Morsy's government, this is a precarious position for both the U.S. and Egypt.

In his second term, Obama should adopt a more agile and informed policy toward Egypt, one that matches the words often heard from the White House -- "The United States always has stood with the Egyptian people" -- with action.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cynthia Schneider.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT