Ambassador Anne Patterson, the Controversial Face of America’s Egypt Policy
A career diplomat takes on what may be a higher profile than she’d like. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake report.
U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson has become the public face in Egypt of America’s policy failure there. Now, she is charged with restoring not only U.S. relations with the world’s most populous Arab nation, but her own reputation as well.
On paper, Patterson seemed like the ideal diplomat to guide U.S. involvement in Egypt during its transition from six decades of military rule to democracy, given her experience in politically volatile countries such as Colombia and Pakistan. An unusually influential ambassador, she played a major role in forming the U.S. approach to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party led by Mohamed Morsi, the elected president who was arrested and removed from office by the Egyptian Army a week ago after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to protest his rule.
But while her American defenders credit Patterson with taking a realistic approach to a volatile situation, many in the Egyptian opposition regard her as the person responsible for America’s close embrace of Islamists in Egypt. During the protests that led to the fall of Morsi’s government, her face, crossed out with a red X, became the symbol for many Egyptians of what they saw as U.S. discouragement of their efforts.
“Some say that street action will produce better results than elections,” Patterson said in a June 18 speech. “To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical.”
To many in Egypt and some in Washington, Patterson’s comments were only the latest example of her failure to recognize the Morsi government’s bad behavior and her reluctance to use her office to publicly press it to address the grievances of the Egyptian people.
“Rather than understand and remedy the perception that the U.S. is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Ambassador Patterson is continuing the age-old U.S. practice in Egypt of being the last man standing to support an authoritarian regime. In so doing, the U.S. is once again putting itself in an increasingly lonely camp, contributing to ongoing instability, and hurting its own image and credibility with the Egyptian people,” Egyptian activist and lawyer Dina Guirgui wrote at the time.
Now, the U.S. government—despite urging the military not to topple Egypt’s president—is tacitly endorsing Morsi’s ouster after the fact. The White House has refused to characterize the events as a “coup,” and declined to call for Morsi to be returned to power. Patterson, now administering a Cairo embassy that is closed most days to the public and reduced to minimal staffing due to ordered departures of nonessential staff, is part of the effort to get the Muslim Brotherhood to return to the political process, an awkward and difficult task considering they were forcibly removed from power after winning elections the United States said were free and fair.
“We will continue to encourage the Muslim Brotherhood, leaders from that group, to participate in the process. We know this is not going to be an easy process, but that’s what we’ll continue to encourage,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “I think that it’s safe to assume that Ambassador Patterson is very engaged in this process, as are a number of other officials, but she’s also engaged with a broad range of officials on the ground.”
Back in Washington, officials and experts debate whether or not the failure of U.S. policy in Egypt since the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak is really Patterson’s fault. Many point to the fact that Patterson argued internally for a policy focused on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, even pushing for a Morsi visit to the White House that never occurred.
She personally pushed for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit Cairo last June, a trip that turned out to be a disaster as Egyptians pelted Clinton’s motorcade with tomatoes, chanted about Monica Lewinsky, and promoted conspiracy theories that Clinton aide Huma Abedin was part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to control the Egyptian government.
“She was pushing for a tight embrace of Morsi. Her view was we need to lock this relationship down. Meanwhile, she alienated the opposition. It was both unwise and unnecessary,” one former Obama administration official told The Daily Beast. “She was telling a lot of people that the opposition was useless, that there was no point investing time in them, that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only game in town.”
In internal discussions, Patterson downplayed the steps the Morsi government’s authoritarian tendencies and failed to respond forcefully to abuses such as the Egyptian government raids on American NGOs, many critics said. Plus, she didn’t foresee the street protests scheduled for June 30 leading to the dramatic events of the past 10 days, leaving the U.S. unprepared.
“The whole point of this revolutionary period is that it is very dynamic and you have to hedge your bets,” the official said. “At every point she misread what was happening.”
Another former Obama administration official outlined for The Daily Beast the defense of Patterson: that she was doing her best to implement a White House policy meant to correct decades where the United States failed to engage the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in Egypt.
“Anne has, since her first days in Egypt, noted that the Egyptians who are favorite contacts of Washington think tanks, congressional staffers, State Department types, and so forth are perhaps talented and creative and admirable individuals but do not necessarily represent 80 million Egyptians,” this official said. “She basically has argued that we need to grasp that there is a conservative, religious, traditional part of Egyptian society that probably isn’t identifying with the favorite pets of the Washington think tank crowd.”
Moreover, said this official, Patterson is taking flak because she is the prominent representative in Cairo of an American government that is always the target of Egyptian ire, no matter what the U.S. does or does not do.
“Let us remember that, in situations like this, the U.S. cannot win in the court of Egyptian public opinion. It is far easier for the Egyptians to find foreign conspiracies than to look at themselves in the mirror,” the official said. “It’s one thing for the Egyptians to believe Anne Patterson is evil, but Washington surely can see what is really going on. Washington should not punish Anne Patterson for Egyptian escapism, fantasy, and xenophobia.”
Throughout Patterson’s career, she has worked closely with weak civilian governments threatened by armed insurgencies and the prospect for military rule. She distinguished herself as a senior diplomat working on South American counter-narcotics in the 1990s during a U.S. military aid program for Colombia known as Plan Colombia. Patterson was rewarded with an ambassadorship in Bogota in 2000 where she developed a close partnership with President Andres Pastrana at the time, insisting that he would be the public face of his country’s counter-insurgency as opposed to the generals in the country’s military that had earned a reputation for human rights abuses and drug running.
Her experience in Colombia prepared her for her next big assignment, as the American ambassador to Pakistan. When Patterson arrived in Islamabad in 2007, Pervez Musharraf, the former chief of the country’s military was also the president after he seized power in a 1999 coup and assumed the presidency in 2001. Musharraf was also unpopular and weak. Over time, Patterson worked behind the scenes with other elements of the country’s civil society to plot a transition to an elected, civilian government. But Patterson’s style meant she did her work behind the scenes and out of the public spotlight.
“In Pakistan she realized Musharraf was far too weak,” said Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to Washington appointed after Musharraf resigned his office in 2007. “She reached out to all particular factions and did not say anything publicly about Musharraf. She was talking to everyone to understand what was happening and to see if the United States could move in a direction in which to help American policy.”
Several Obama administration officials tell The Daily Beast that her experiences working to restore civilian rule in Pakistan and bolstering Pastrana in Colombia shaped her perceptions of Egypt. “Ambassador Patterson was against public criticism of Morsi,” one State Department official told the Daily Beast. “She wanted the United States to support the elected Egyptian government and not be perceived as entering into Egyptian politics.”
But that approach meant that the forces aligned against Morsi have felt abandoned by her, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Somehow she made the opposition feel like that they were the enemy and it’s never good to have any part of the political structure feel like they were the enemy. A more successful diplomatic strategy would have made sure nobody felt they were the enemy,” he said. “They just felt they didn’t respect them. It’s hard to imagine that was a message she wanted to send but that’s the message that many in the opposition received.”
At the same time, the White House deserves some blame for what’s happening to Patterson, Alterman said, because it failed to threaten Egypt’s government with tough messages when it counted. The ambassador is supposed to be the good cop, but there was no bad cop to balance her out. “Any ambassador maintaining a relationship with a regime that is turning more oppressive needs a countervailing voice in the policy and I haven’t heard about one,” Alterman said.
Now Patterson may be up for a promotion that would take her out of Cairo; President Obama has reportedly considered nominating her to be the next assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs. But the prospective confirmation process would likely be complicated by her recent notoriety, which could scare the White House away from going through with the move.
“Even if the Egyptians blame Anne as a symbol of purported messages that in hindsight seem ill advised, one hopes the White House would not punish her for carrying out faithfully its bidding,” one former administration official said. “I do wince in reading her public remarks on June 18. I’m sure she herself would edit those remarks, if she could. But even if the Egyptian people now see her and judge her activities only in the context of those remarks, Washington can surely have a more sophisticated understanding of the role she played.”