Skip to main content

U.S gets it wrong on Egypt again

By Cynthia Schneider, Special to CNN
updated 11:07 AM EST, Fri January 25, 2013
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
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT