Egypt, America and the future
The Egyptian revolution has changed US-Egyptian relations forever, as surely Washington knows, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi
Egyptian-US relations turned a corner after the 1973 October War, when Anwar El-Sadat restructured foreign policy in favour of closer ties with Washington. Sadat encouraged US diplomats, chiefly Henry Kissinger, to get involved in Egyptian-Israeli affairs, with a view to ending the antagonism and bringing about a negotiated settlement. Following Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in September 1977, things started to move on quickly, leading to a peace treaty with Israel and elevating Egyptian-US relations to the level of a strategic alliance.
The Hosni Mubarak era started with a cautious recalibration during which Cairo tried to restore a sense of proportion in its foreign relations, mainly through improving ties with Arab countries and re-befriending the Soviets. During that period, Mubarak tried to maintain perspective in the country's ties with the US and Israel. In one incident, following the Sabra and Shatila massacre, he recalled the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv. But on the whole, cooperation and coordination with the United States gathered pace, culminating in Egypt's participation in the international coalition President George Bush Sr put together to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. In reward for this move, Egypt had $7 billion of its military debts written off. Under George Bush Jr, relations soured. Washington's persistent rhetoric about promoting democracy grated against the Egyptian regime's sensibility, but it continued to act as a lynchpin of US strategy in the region.
As of 2004, a palpable strain in relations led to the discontinuation of Mubarak's yearly visits to the United States, but this didn't keep the Egyptian regime from pressing on with its regional cooperation with the US. Egypt allowed US ships to sail through the Suez Canal during the war on Iraq. It signed the QIZ (Qualified Industrial Zones) agreement, allowing for the incorporation of Israeli components in Egyptian textiles produced exported to the US. With US prodding, Egypt also began exporting natural gas to Israel.
When Obama took office, many expected Egyptian-US relations to improve because of Obama's vows to support the peace process, help create a Palestinian state, and bring Israel's building of settlements to an end. What mattered most, however, for the Egyptian regime, was Obama's more lenient approach to democracy. Obama's administration, like so many US administrations before it, preferred stable partners to democratic ones.
This was clear in Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009. During this speech, the US president said that every society must seek its way to democracy, for its values cannot be imposed from abroad. To be fair, Obama also added that people should have the right to choose their rulers. To stay on Egypt's good side, Washington ended the assistance it used to give to civil society organisations said to be not in compliance with Egyptian laws.
The revolution of 25 January 2011 placed the US on the spot. At first, US officials stuck with the Mubarak regime, considering it their best bet. Hillary Clinton, for instance, said that the Egyptian regime was "stable" and a reliable friend of the US. But as the revolution continued, the US administration switched sides. US officials began to urge Mubarak to lead changes in the country. And before long, they were calling on him to step down "yesterday and not tomorrow".
Once Mubarak stepped down, the Americans began to promise financial aid. In his 19 May speech dedicated to Arab revolutions, Obama promised $2 billion for Egypt and urged the IMF, the World Bank, and the G8 to follow suit. This sympathy with the Egyptian revolution goes hand-in-hand with a lot of curiosity about the endgame in Egypt. What shape will the country take, and what kind of policies will it be adopting in the future? These are questions that US officials and research centres are vying to answer.
At the centre of the current curiosity is the Muslim Brotherhood, still regarded in Washington as Egypt's best-organised political group. American officials are divided over the Brotherhood. Some wish to open dialogue and build bridges with the group, just in case they turn out to be the dominant force in the next parliament. Others wish to have no relations with the Brotherhood, arguing that the latter should first recognise Israel and denounce violence.
The transition to democracy in Egypt, which many predicted the 25 January Revolution would bring about, was not free from blemishes. And the Americans had once again to bring up the issue of human rights. At one point, Secretary of State Clinton had to urge Egypt's new leaders to make sure that trials are conducted according to proper procedures; that journalists, civilians and judges must not be harassed, and that the spirit the people showed in Tahrir Square must be maintained.
So what's next?
Although it is too early to paint a detailed picture of future Egyptian-US relations, one can venture to draw a rough outline. For one thing, the Egyptian revolution has earned the country a lot of respect abroad, and that includes respect for its independent foreign policy. The Americans must be aware by now that the unquestioning subservience of the past is gone forever. In a democratic Egypt, many political groups will have to engage in political decision-making, and some of these groups have serious reservations on US foreign policy in the region. These reservations will have to be taken into account in the future. From now on, one is to expect Egypt's foreign policy to be influenced by its public opinion. As US officials try to cope with these changes, they will have to keep in mind Egypt's geostrategic location and the fact that anything that happens in the country has repercussions around the region.
For a long time, US officials have been interested in continued military and intelligence cooperation with Egypt, as well as in the latter's commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. These are not the kind of priorities that are going to change anytime soon. But everything considered, a lot will depend on what type of regime Egypt will end up having, and around which groups and individuals power coalesces.
* The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.