No change in US-Egyptian relations
While in the coming period we may see some rhetorical flourishes for domestic consumption, fundamentally the US-Egypt strategic relationship will continue unaltered on both sides, writes Amr Abdel-Ati
Although the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Mursi, may not have been the US's preferred choice for the Egyptian presidency, due to concerns over the repercussions this could have on US interests, Washington asserted a degree of pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to announce the results of the presidential runoffs as soon as possible and not to alter the count in favour of Mursi's rival, the last prime minister of the former regime. A Washington Post editorial of 24 June revealed that the Obama administration might have been instrumental in the announcement of the Mursi victory. Officials in Washington not only urged SCAF to respect the results of the polls and spoke of US support for democratic transformation in Egypt, but they also hinted at the possibility of a suspension in US aid to Egypt if there were evidence of last-minute tampering.
In the intervening week between the presidential polls and the announcement of the results, observers in the US were split into two sharply divergent views. One side proceeded from the premise that a democratic Egypt would be stronger than a non-democratic one. Therefore, the victory of an Islamist in Egypt's first free and fair presidential elections would boost Egypt's "soft strength" in the Middle East and, emboldened by this strength, the new president of this pivotal country of the Middle East and cornerstone of US interests in the region, would begin to pursue policies opposed to the US and Israel. Then, as tensions in Egyptian-US relations and Egyptian-Israeli relations worsened over the coming months, the influence of the Islamists would increase further. Consequently, proponents of this argument criticised US pressures on SCAF to declare Mursi president of post-revolutionary Egypt and supported measures intended to limit the powers of the president-elect.
The opposing view encouraged the Obama administration's pressures on SCAF to announce the results of the elections without intervening in the results which, based on preliminary returns, strongly pointed to a Mursi victory. The advocates of this opinion also praised the Obama administration for living up to its commitment not to attempt to influence the Egyptian voter and they urged it to maintain contact not only with the Muslim Brothers but with all political trends, in view of the fluidity of the situation in Egypt and so as to avoid appearing to favour any of the diverse political factions over the others in the contentious political fray in Egypt. They further held that the US must now begin to explore a new mode of relationship with Egypt based on common interests and mutual respect.
Following the declaration of Mursi's victory, official and non-governmental policy study centres in the US began to peer forward in an attempt to formulate a prognosis of the future of Egyptian-US relations under a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo. They did not have much to go on with regard to several issues of central concern to Washington in the Middle East, because the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidate had been deliberately vague on these issues. Mursi has assiduously avoided all mention of Israel in his speeches, which naturally stirred alarm among many circles in Washington and in Tel Aviv. Nor has he or any Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen declared a clear stance on the use of armed violence by resistance movements in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, movements that the US State Department brands as "terrorist" in its annual reports. In general, the foreign policy outlooks of the Islamist trend have been ambiguous, especially since the January revolution.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Mursi victory will usher in a certain degree of change in Egyptian foreign policy in general, and with respect to the US in particular. In his speech from Cairo University following the official swearing in ceremony before the Supreme Constitutional Court, President Mursi vowed that his government would continue to abide by all the international treaties and conventions to which Egypt is a state party. However, he also pledged to abide by the "fixed principles" of Egyptian policy and to give these principles a new boost in the process of a drive to regain Egypt's regional and international influence, which had deteriorated under the 30 years of Mubarak's rule. Nonetheless, there are no grounds for assuming that this signals a radical change in approach toward Egyptian-US relations, even if there is a tactical shift in the short term. This is supported by a number of reasons which we sum up as follows:
- US-Muslim Brotherhood understandings: In the year and a half between the 25 January Revolution and the presidential run-offs, there have been many meetings between members of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau and various US officials. Indeed, no visit of a US official to Cairo was complete without a meeting between Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party officials and, in exchange, there were two high-profile visits of Muslim Brotherhood officials to Washington, one in the form of a delegation from the currently dismissed Islamist-dominated parliament, and the most recent of which stirred some controversy in the US over why a visa had been issued to one of its members. From the leaks from the various meetings between the two sides in Cairo and in Washington, one cannot help but to conclude that they struck some understandings on a range of issues. This is confirmed by a public relations campaign pitched to US audiences and that featured numerous appearances of key Muslim Brotherhood officials, such as Khairat El-Shater, in some of the most widely circulated newspapers in the US, issuing reassurances that the Muslim Brotherhood would remain open to -- and on good terms with -- the West, and that they would do nothing to obstruct US interests and national security as long as US policy did nothing to jeopardise Egypt's interests and the dignity of the Egyptian people, or as long as Egyptian-US relations remained on a footing of mutual respect and the pursuit of common interests. Both sides took pains to convey the message that the Muslim Brothers and the US were realistic and pragmatic enough to come to agreements on areas of mutual concern and to avoid jeopardising a relationship that was strategic to both sides.
- The role of SCAF in the Egyptian foreign policy decision-making process: Although the newly elected president will assume charge of foreign policy among the other official duties assigned to him, SCAF -- with or without the supplement to the Constitutional Declaration -- will remain a key player in Egyptian foreign policy. This applies, in particular, to relations with the US, in view of the close relations between many SCAF officials and their US counterparts, which are documented by numerous US reports and studies. Perhaps more crucial in this regard is the fact that the US supplies the Egyptian army with a large portion of its arms, not to mention some $1.3 billion a year in military aid, which Egyptian army officials now and in the future will not be willing to put at risk.
- The need to recover from the current economic crisis: In view of the economic deterioration since the 25 January Revolution and the fact that a good part of the legitimacy and strength of the new president will rest on his ability to deliver on his pledge to revive the Egyptian economy, President Mursi will have to turn to international financial agencies (the World Bank and the IMF for their assistance in helping Egypt recover from its current economic straits. The fact that the US controls these organisations is another good reason for the president to avoid jeopardising Egypt's strong relations with Washington.
- The primacy of domestic concerns: Under the current conditions, the incoming president needs to give priority to the issues that most preoccupy Egyptian public opinion and these are the economy, security and other such concerns that most directly affect the people. It is unlikely that the new president will attempt to stir trouble between Cairo and Washington, at least in the short term, in view of the repercussions this could have on his ability to deliver on these issues. In fact, he will want to continue to demonstrate his openness to the international community, in view the powerful international influence of the US and Washington's ability to affect developments in Egypt.
In light of the foregoing, the forthcoming period is likely to produce various understandings between Cairo and Washington over a number of areas of difference. Given both Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood's gift for secrecy, many of these understandings will probably be concluded behind closed doors and remain unpublicised. At the same time, the existence of such agreements does not preclude the possibility of various declarations and postures issuing from both sides and geared primarily for domestic consumption. Egyptians may soon see some disagreeable rhetorical flourishes coming out of Washington as the election season approaches in the US and Obama comes under pressure from the pro-Israeli lobbies and Congress to exact explicit commitments from Egypt with respect to the security of Israel.
In light of the foregoing, while Egypt under Mursi might change tack in its approach towards Washington, it his highly unlikely to be a radical shift. In fact, the likelihood is that Mursi will strive to strengthen Egypt's ties with the US and that if any tensions arise they will probably be short-lived and not affect the general course and tenor of the Egyptian-US relationship. In the short-run, however, officials in the US will remain cautious. They will want to see the extent to which the Mursi government lives up to the reassurances the Muslim Brotherhood has given, and puts into effect the understandings the two sides have reached. Of course, some problems may arise. These would most likely centre on such questions as the Arab-Israeli peace process, Egypt's relationship with Hamas, the possibility of Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement, and minority rights, women's rights and other civil liberties and human rights questions in Egypt.
However, after some posturing, primarily intended for domestic consumption, both sides would hasten to iron out their difficulties and soothe tensions in order to avert any serious deterioration in their relationship and in order to sustain its strategic nature that serves the interests of both sides. In short, the pragmatism that characterises both the Muslim Brotherhood and Washington will continue to govern their relationship under Mursi, and under whoever comes to power in the November elections in the US.
The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.