A looming paradox
The relationship between the US and Egypt is likely to undergo changes in the wake of the election of the new Egyptian president. However, there is disagreement about how far these changes may go or what they may mean, writes Ezzat Ibrahim in Washington
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US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson shakes hands with Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie in Cairo earlier this year
The difficult question to answer in Washington, when it comes to the future of the Egyptian-American relationship, is which direction US policy-making institutions should take in the short and medium term. Since the results of the presidential elections were announced in Egypt and Mohammed Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party candidate, was declared the winner, US officials have faced the paradox of how to renew a stable and strategic relationship with Egypt without risking other regional interests. The arrival of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate as president of Egypt is a puzzle for Middle East experts in the US capital.
Contacts between US officials and the Muslim Brothers have escalated over the last 18 months, and Brotherhood delegations have become a matter of routine in Washington. When the first official Brotherhood delegation arrived in the city last March, the mainstream media in the United States called it a "charm offensive" designed to win the hearts and minds of American society. Senior members of the group have avoided the most critical issues, such as the relationship between Israel and Egypt under the rule of a Muslim Brotherhood president or government, the possibility of terminating the Camp David Accords, and other thorny issues that were included in recent White House or state department statements, such as minority and women's rights and the freedom of expression under an Islamist government.
Different American political circles have thus far taken a modest and tentative approach to the relationship with the new Islamist ascendancy that has emerged following the January 25 Revolution for several reasons. First, there has been the limited US leverage over the situation in Egypt since the popular uprising against Washington's long-time ally, former president Hosni Mubarak. Second, the US government has wanted to avoid a possible backlash in bilateral relations, especially given the rise of traditional foes to US policy in the region Òê" the Islamist groups that have criticised the US and Israel over the past three decades.
The Muslim Brotherhood in the past refrained from adopting or supporting violent acts, though the American right and the pro-Israel lobby have claimed that the group is the mother of terrorist groups across the world. Since the election of Morsi as Egypt's president, the US has found itself moving from a "hypothetical approach" to the Muslim Brotherhood's taking power to a more realistic one that should answer, and not anticipate, critical questions relating to the future relationship with Cairo.
PICKING A WINNER: The US is also dealing with different centres of power in Egypt. On the one hand, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still has vast power in the country, and it regained legislative power a few days before the final results of the elections were announced. It also has sway over national security and domestic issues through the National Defense Council. The latter is made up of a majority of military generals and less senior civilian officials, including the head of the state.
US policy-makers are watching the possible coming power struggle between the SCAF and the Islamists and have kept saying that Washington is not interested in "picking a winner," especially in the second round of the presidential elections. For many US strategists and decision-makers, the idea of building bridges with a winner from the old regime, such as former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, would have been a risky business, even if he had been elected with a majority of the vote. According to some insiders, the Obama administration hoped to avoid the scenario of restoring the old regime because the US would then have paid a heavy price for any future confrontations between the revolutionaries and the institutions of the old regime. However, US and Egyptian officials in Washington have denied any kind of pressure from the administration on Cairo to announce Morsi as the winner.
Following the announcement of the final results, Obama's inner circle is still taking a cautious approach to the situation, in order to see how the new president will handle power and to monitor the outcome of any power struggle between the SCAF and the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Middle East experts and human right advocates are demanding a more positive approach to the situation in Egypt. "While Clinton and Obama cannot be expected to micromanage the Egyptian transition, they clearly can be effective when they speak up, and they should do it more often. Priorities should include urging the military to keep out of the writing of a new constitution and allowing the return of parliamentary life," journalist Michele Dunn wrote earlier this week in the Washington Post.
Another aspect of the future relationship will be to widen the scope of US help for the Egyptian people. "Showing respect to Egyptians will mean showing willingness to rebalance the US-Egyptian relationship towards the free trade and investment that Egypt desperately needs to provide jobs for its largely youthful population of more than 80 million, and away from a large military aid package that benefits relatively few," Dunn also wrote. Apparently, the US and Egypt are pushing hard to launch free-trade agreement negotiations between the two countries in the near future.
In a speech before the Washington International Trade Association, Hisham Fahmy, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce, told representatives of US companies that "starting free-trade talks will help improve the US's image in Egypt and will also enable the United States to compete with the European Union in the Egyptian market." The general assumption in Washington is that Morsi's foreign policy is not likely to change in substance, at least in the short term. Senior analysts predict that the new government can ill afford to strain relations with the US or risk tensions with the international community by abandoning the peace treaty with Israel.
"Egypt is not in a position to threaten Israel at the moment," Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told journalist Fareed Zakaria, though the US administration is witnessing tensions because of the ascendancy of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the way a Republican-majority Congress has viewed this major transformation. Many respected members of Congress are looking to the Brotherhood's ascendancy as foreshadowing a more strident version of Political Islam that will have wider consequences.
"This new Egyptian government can go either way. It can open to the ideas of others. It can work to develop a vibrant economy for the people, jobs for this very young country with so many young people. Or it can turn inward into Sharia Law and a much more fundamentalist Muslim country. And that is the worry," California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told Voice of America. This senior lawmaker's views reflect a major trend within the ranks of both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
According to different sources inside the administration, heated discussions are underway between senior state department officials and lawmakers on the way the US should now deal with Egypt. The state department's response has not been satisfactory to most members of Congress due to the ongoing developments on the ground and the vague foreign policies of the new Egyptian president. For some US lawmakers, major US national interests at stake.
"Our objectives are pretty clear. We want a partner that will help fight extremists, a partner that will continue with peace in the Middle East, and will move the country forward on democratic reform, particularly protecting the rights of its citizens," Republican senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said. "That is our objective. And we have a responsibility to the [US] taxpayers to make sure our funds are used appropriately. We also have a responsibility to America's national security interests to pursue Egypt as a partner in our objectives."
CIVIL SOCIETY AND MINORITY RIGHTS: In a strong message that reflects the tension that surrounds US policy towards Egypt, Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy, told a Coptic gathering in Washington last week that the US insists on the need to respect the rights of all Egyptian citizens and that the United States sees the need for a voice being given to the Copts in the writing of the new constitution. The US official said that the United States had fears regarding the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood on Copts and women, and he said he had raised these issues with Egyptian officials over the last 18 months.
Posner said that US officials had been engaging in a dialogue with Morsi "not because we agree, but because he is part of power now. The conversation is not light." He added that Washington wants to make sure that Egyptian civil society is developing well, and that the coming months will witness new discussions on human rights standards as part of a comprehensive review of all aspects of bilateral relations with Egypt, including US assistance.
It is obvious that the US Congress will raise the bar for any future rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood and the new Egyptian president, and that the US administration will find itself with a challenge in setting criteria to deal with the new government in Cairo. A few months before the presidential elections, the Republicans will likely step up criticism of the Obama administration, and if the Egyptian transition does not go well it could be a "wild card" in the next US presidential race.
The administration will likely take a very careful approach in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, and some experts say that contacts might be kept to a minimum in order to avoid their being used against Obama and by the conservatives and pro-Israel lobby. According to a memo from the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of 29 June, this most-powerful pro-Israel group has asked the United States to insist that Egypt maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and reject extremism, specifying steps that should now be taken for the future.
These steps note that with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate to the presidency of Egypt, the potential exists for fundamental changes in Egyptian foreign policy and an increase in anti-American and anti-Israel policies. Many Muslim Brotherhood leaders have previously made troubling comments regarding Israel and America, but the new government will be judged by its actions and future US policies should respond to those. They also note that the United States must insist that Egypt maintain the peace treaty with Israel, including maintaining
diplomatic contacts, preventing the Sinai from becoming a "terrorist safe haven" or launch pad for terrorism against Israel, and allowing the continued presence of the US-led multinational force and observers in the Sinai. Under US law, Egypt risks losing its annual US aid package if it does not uphold the peace treaty with Israel.
Describing the present US dilemma, Cook pointed to the need to get the right sense of recent developments. "If there is any consensus in Washington about the Brothers and the US-Egypt strategic relationship, it is cautious optimism. The Brothers need decent relations with the United States given Egypt's dire economic situation, which is why we have been hearing endless tales of the Brothers' vaunted pragmatism."
Nevertheless, Cook also warned against such cautious optimism, by saying that "this emphasis on the pragmatism of the Brotherhood may be leading to false expectations. After all, for more than 30 years the Brothers have run against the US-Egypt relationship, and they used those ties to discredit both [former president] Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Cairo's relationship with Washington is also deeply unpopular with Egyptians; it developed precisely because Sadat and Mubarak were authoritarians who, to varying degrees, could disregard public sentiment. It would thus be amazingly unpragmatic for the Brotherhood, alleged agents of democratic change, to continue close ties with the United States."
The Obama administration will now face a tangible challenge over the next few months and before the US presidential vote in November on how to deal with the new president of Egypt without causing trouble for the incumbent US president, who is accused of opening the door for the Muslim Brotherhood and endangering US interests in the Middle East.
It is expected that the US president will avoid meeting the new president of Egypt even during the high-level meetings of the UN General Assembly in September. On the other hand, the Freedom and Justice Party has also reportedly informed the US that it wants to see senior level meetings in order to halt any entwining of the Brotherhood or the new Egyptian president in US policy in the region.
However, the sensitivity that now characterises Muslim Brotherhood-US relations is unlikely to apply to bilateral military relations since the US has vital regional interests that need coordination with the Egyptian military establishment and with its ability to act alone. Such paradoxes in the relationship between Egypt and the US may well be magnified over the coming months.