"Disappointing," "vague" and "unconvincing." Those were some of the words used by Egyptian analysts and activists to describe US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Jan. 10 speech at the American University in Cairo. Promoted earlier as a speech that would "outline America's Middle East policy," Pompeo's address was "void of substance," the analysts concurred, arguing that it left the audience without a clear understanding of the US vision for the troubled region.
Among the key messages in Pompeo's address — titled "A Force for Good: America's Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East" — was that "Iran's expansionist and tyrannical ambitions must be thwarted" and that the United States was "committed to continuing the fight against radical Islam and to dismantling IS [the Islamic State]."
"America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," he pledged.
But the top US diplomat also lambasted former US President Barack Obama (without mentioning his name), blaming the previous administration for "underestimating the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islam" and for "maintaining silence when the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran."
Pompeo's rebuke of Obama's Middle East policy was seen as "uncalled for" and "in poor taste" by some of the analysts and diplomats who attended the event.
"The former US president's shortcomings are history. We need to look forward rather than dwell on the past," Noha Bakr, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor. "I had looked forward to a speech with a holistic approach to the region, one that would tackle the people's concerns and tell us precisely how US foreign policy would address them. Instead, we got a talk that focused on Iran and the drawbacks of Obama's Middle East policy."
Her disappointment was shared by other analysts and political activists, albeit for different reasons.
Mohamed Aboul El-Ghar, former head of Egypt's Social Democratic Party, was puzzled by Pompeo's call for a Middle East alliance against Iran.
"Why would the US secretary of state come to Cairo to call for the formation of an Arab NATO-like alliance or a so-called coalition of Middle Eastern states against the Islamic Republic? Such a call would go down well in Gulf countries where there are longstanding tensions between Islam's two sects, but it was not well-received by Egyptians. The majority of Egyptians — save for some Al-Azhar clerics and the country's hard-line Salafists — do not see Iran as a major threat. In fact, nothing could be further from their mind than the Shiite-Sunni divide," Aboul El-Ghar told Al-Monitor.
Although Egyptian-Iranian relations are not at their best — government officials and members of Egypt's security agencies often express concern over Iran's influence and alleged meddling in the region — President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made it clear he is against a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic. "I am always against war," he told Reuters in November 2014, without mentioning which country was involved.
Meanwhile, Egypt has strong ties with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have extended lavish financial support to their North African ally since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and which consider Iran as an existential threat. Egypt is also a member of the Arab coalition fighting Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis in Yemen, a war that the European Union and international rights groups have described as "the worst humanitarian crisis in history." Egypt has denied sending ground troops to the war-ravaged country, insisting that its role in the Saudi-led war has been limited to naval and aerial operations against the Houthi rebels.
"The US secretary of state neglected the suffering of the Yemeni people in his speech; he made no mention of their plight," Aboul El-Ghar said.
He said that he believes Pompeo's Iran-bashing was driven by his support for Israel, which considers Iran its archenemy rather than in defense of US Gulf allies.
"What made the speech difficult to swallow was that Israel was mentioned more than a dozen times, while there was no mention at all of the struggle of the Palestinian people and their right to a sovereign state," Aboul El Ghar added.
Walid El Sheikh, an independent journalist who is based in Berlin, agreed, describing the speech as an "ode to Israel." He told Al-Monitor, "Almost every word in Pompeo's speech was somehow related to Israel's security. He chose to overlook the repression of the region's dictators because of their close cooperation with Israel, and he praised the rapprochement between the Gulf states and Israel."
He noted, "The United States fully supports Israel's right to defend itself against the Iranian regime's aggressive adventurism. We will continue to ensure that Israel has military capacity to do so decisively."
In more scathing criticism of the speech, former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, who served for a short spell as vice president during Egypt's interim transition that followed the downfall of Morsi, tweeted, "If the US vision for the Middle East as spelled out by the US secretary of state is limited to confronting radical Islam and Iran, ensuring Israel's security and bragging about relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem, with total disregard for the hopes and aspirations of the people of the region for freedom and dignity, the message is clear: We have to depend on ourselves — and only ourselves."
And that is precisely what Pompeo urged the Middle Eastern states to do: Shoulder more responsibility, particularly in the fight against terror.
"With an administration that is as inconsistent in its policies vis-a-vis the region as the one currently in the Oval Office, that may not be such a bad idea," Aboul El-Ghar said.
He added, "The Trump administration's conflicting messages on US troop withdrawal from Syria are confusing to say the least. First, President [Donald] Trump unexpectedly announced last month that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria, then his national security adviser John Bolton said there would be no withdrawal until IS is defeated. Pompeo too has assured us that the troop withdrawal would be gradual and that 'the United States will not back out until the last Iranian boot has been expelled from Syria.' A day later, the US military announces the start of the withdrawal. What are we to make of this?"
Ironically, Pompeo had said in his speech that "If America retreats, chaos follows." Middle Eastern allies are concerned that if US troops leave Syria, there would likely be a power vacuum that could strengthen IS and pave the way for increased Iranian influence in the region.
Pompeo's pledge of "a new beginning" and his remark that "America is a force for good in the Middle East" also sparked a barrage of criticism from skeptical analysts who saw the comments as a return to the old policies of the 70s and 80s when the US administration had aligned itself with the dictators in the region, turning a blind eye to the people's concerns and aspirations.
Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, a research center within the Brookings Institution, said that Pompeo had made no reference to democracy in what the researcher dubbed "a dictators first" Middle East policy speech. Instead, Pompeo praised Sisi's counterterrorism efforts, efforts that the analysts fear are being used as a pretext to crack down on opposition figures and critics.
"Today it felt that the US is bent on empowering tyrants in pursuit of its animosity towards Iran, no matter what the cost. Sadly the cost we pay here is US sanctioned injustice and loss of our freedom," independent journalist Wael Eskandar told CNN's Ben Wedeman.
H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, also dismissed Pompeo's remarks as unconvincing and unfit for a local audience.
"Clearly, when Pompeo insists that 'America is a force for good in the Middle East' or 'America has always been a liberating force, not an occupying power,' he is not thinking about a local audience at all, which generally associates American foreign policy as being responsible for invasion and occupation, for supporting autocracy and occupiers, and being high on great rhetoric about fundamental freedoms and low on calling out abuses," he said in comments to the Atlantic Council.
Barbara Ibrahim, director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, meanwhile tweeted, "Dictators in the region will applaud this speech," in reference to the absence of any mention of human rights in the speech.