Talking to Egypt, thinking of Iran
In what seems to be the beginning of a stream of visits by high-level US officials, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived in Cairo early this week with a message from President Barack Obama.
Burns's boss, Hillary Clinton, is going to start a tour of Egypt and the region Saturday.
The visits show the extent of interest the Obama administration is taking in Egyptian affairs. With an Islamist president taking charge in Egypt, Obama, who is facing elections in November, must be eager to straighten out bilateral ties with Egypt and make sure that the two countries have an understanding about regional matters. Needless to say, decisions taken by Mohamed Mursi and his new government may impact on Obama's chances of winning the presidential race.
Obama's Republican adversaries, and the Israel lobby, may be tempted to use events in the Middle East to undermine Obama's chances of securing a second term.
It is safe to assume that US policy concerning the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is considerably influenced by Washington's bitter experience with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. The Iranian revolution not only led to the severing of relations between the two countries, but to this day raises the possibility of a military confrontation.
The Americans were taken by surprise when the Iranian revolution happened, and they must have regreted not forging some kind of a modus operandi with the mullahs, who against all odds managed to run the country for decades afterwards. The price the Americans had to pay for this strategic mistake was enormous, as many US politicians now admit.
The memory of this mistake may explain Washington's uncomfortable wavering during the last days of Mubarak's dictatorship. But this time, the US made it clear, at a relatively early stage; that it was willing to engage in dialogue with the Islamists, if they manage to accede to power through peaceful means.
The Obama administration, despite opposition in the US congress, kept channels open with the Muslim Brotherhood. Remarkably, officials in both the Pentagon and the US State Department argued that the Muslim Brotherhood and other segments of the religious current in Egypt were of a different ilk from the Iranians.
For one thing, the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni group whereas the Iranian mullahs are Shias. The Sunnis never called America the "Great Satan" as Khomeini used to do.
Also, many in Washington believe that the economic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood are capitalist par excellence, which minimises the potential for differences with America.
Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood's position on Israel is not as fierce as that of the Iranians. The Brotherhood says it has no problem accepting Israel's existence as long as the Israelis respect existing treaties, refrain from undermining Egyptian interests, and work harder for peace with the Palestinians. The Iranians, by contrast, have threatened to destroy Israel.
Unlike the ayatollahs, Muslim Brotherhood officials denounce violence and pledge to respect democracy. On a sartorial note, Muslim Brotherhood officials wear neckties, while the Iranians shun them as a sign of detested Westernisation.
None of the above may be reassuring to the Americans, but it is no guarantee that things will be a smooth sailing from now on. Unless, of course, the Americans have received other assurances that remain undisclosed.