US collaboration with authoritarian regimes could change under a Joe Biden administration. Photo: AFP

The relationship between allies may be likened to marriage. It has ups and downs, and keeping the bond alive requires devotion by both parties. However, when a democratic superpower such as the United States seeks to enhance its relationships with authoritarian nations, unusual tactics are called for.

The US presents an image of advocating democracy by reaching out to reformers – while at the same time maximizing the benefits from its relationships with authoritarian leaders. 

The United States has a long history of supporting human-rights activists, democracy advocates and even insurgents who topple their rulers. A moral justification is always offered by the US to sugarcoat any foreign-policy flop.  

The US interest in dominating the world requires maintaining good relationships with present and potential rulers, to ensure “marriage durability.”

Yet the marriage that the United States has been proposing to dictators is not a Catholic one. It is more of a “marriage of necessity.”

Being less concerned with human-rights abuses and the decay of democracy, Republican leaders and members of the US Congress have, naturally, been proposing “marriage stability” to authoritarian rulers, best exemplified by President Donald Trump’s explicit policy of non-intervention in other nations’ internal policies. Trump has successfully applied this policy at the expense of enhancing dictators’ brutality against their citizens worldwide.   

“If Egypt were to apply democracy, Islamists who sponsor terrorists will come to power and terrorism will expand universally.” Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak used this mantra successfully and it kept him from introducing any of the political reforms that the United States occasionally demanded of him.

Mubarak was partly correct. After his ouster, and in the wake of Egypt’s first free and fair elections in decades, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed complete presidential and parliamentary powers. Nevertheless, though terrorism did diminish during the period of Islamist rule, it immediately resumed after the Brotherhood’s removal from power.

After the January 2011 revolution, it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power. The United States therefore explained to the Brotherhood that marriage comes with responsibilities. Apparently the United States expected a dowry from the Brotherhood: to uphold the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, refrain from entering any vital relationship with Iran, and contain Hamas’ violent activities. 

As US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was responsible for contracting her country’s marriage to the Muslim Brotherhood, following an “adulterous affair” of more than 80 years.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which had been eager to assume power for almost a century, fulfilled its part of the deal and far more. To our surprise, Hamas’ violent activities declined substantially and, contrary to the rhetoric they had espoused for decades, the Islamists appeared willing to maintain a functional relationship with Israel.  

Meanwhile, Egypt’s deep state, backed by the military, learned that the United States doesn’t stick its neck out for anyone. The Egyptian deep state declined to enter an “adulterous affair” with the US and worked to seize back power, which it succeeded in doing in the events of June 30, 2013.

Knowing that Egypt’s latest ruling regime had become the new US partner and might remain in power for decades, the United States refrained from attaching the label of “military coup” to these events, despite the fact that many American political scholars defined them as such.

The United States fully grasped the moral of the story. It learned to exercise equanimity and detachment with regard to recognizing any uprising that might be unsuccessful. Thus when Turkey experienced an attempted military coup in 2016, the US held its breath for less than a day until the coup failed and then eventually condemned the attempt, saving its marriage to the present ruling regime in Turkey. 

That said, the United States’ rhetoric of democracy has saved the lives of thousands of activists worldwide who have tried to reform their nations through peaceful means. To avoid US pressure, authoritarian rulers tend to soften their iron-fist practices vis-a-vis insurgents.

This was best demonstrated during the presidency of George W Bush, whose “democracy promotion” agenda (irrespective of whether it was a political pressure tactic or a genuine attempt to promote democracy) led to a window of political openness that certainly contributed to the Arab Spring. 

Moreover, the United States is a nation that is open to debate, willing to alter its understanding on any topic. If you are not able to reach out effectively to US lawmakers, you can easily hire lobbyists who will do the job on your behalf. But that can be extremely costly to political reformers.

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, recently stated, “No more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.” Biden thus raised the question of whether (were he to win the forthcoming presidential election) the US will maintain the policy of marriages and illicit affairs, or adopt a policy that genuinely promotes democracy. To boost its image, the US needs to work on becoming a trustworthy, admirable leader. 

Mohammed Nosseir

Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian liberal politician who advocates political participation and economic freedom. Nosseir was member of the higher committee at the Democratic Front Party from 2007 to 2012, followed by being a member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptian Party until 2013.