Clinton in Cairo
Hillary Clinton will visit Egypt against a backdrop of ambiguity over the US role in President Mohamed Mursi's decision to reinstate the dissolved People Assembly, reports Ezzat Ibrahim from Washington
Next Saturday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Cairo to meet Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi and to express US support for Egypt's democratic transition and economic development.
Clinton will meet with senior government officials, civil society and business leaders, and inaugurate the US Consulate General in Alexandria. Earlier this week US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns concluded what the State Department described as "a successful visit".
The State Department said Burns "had a very constructive meeting with President Mursi, during which he underscored the US commitment to building a new partnership with a new, democratic Egypt". Burns also stressed Washington's commitment to tangible initiatives to help Egypt meet pressing economic concerns, including creating jobs and encouraging investment.
According to State Department sources, Burns "stressed the importance of President Mursi and the new government taking an inclusive approach going forward, upholding respect for the rights of women and Egyptians of all faiths. He also touched on other topics of mutual interest, including regional security issues."
It was the first meeting between a senior American official and the newly inaugurated president of Egypt. In public Washington has refrained from expressing any position on the political crisis that erupted following Mursi's decision to recall the dissolved parliament.
"These issues are for Egyptians to decide in a manner that respects democratic principles and the transition process, and is transparent and protects the rights of all Egyptians," said a State Department spokesperson.
Clinton's visit to Cairo offers the possibility of a change in US policy towards Egypt for the first time in more than 30 years. The administration is engaged in heated discussions with the Department of Defence and Congress over the possibility of building a new partnership with Egypt under a president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Sources close to the discussions say there is strong opposition from senior Congress members to developing a new partnership with Cairo without clear bipartisan guidelines that take into consideration an array of US national interests. "What we see in Washington is not a division, but a degree of uncertainty about what President Mursi's agenda and priorities are." Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
In the short-term the US administration might build a pragmatic relationship with Egypt's new president through assistance packages, include support for reform programmes formulated by any new government and pushing Congress to approve a debt swap agreement which would allow Egypt to create a special investment fund. In the meantime, the Republican-majority House of Representatives has expressed unease at the Brotherhood's ascendancy, with many arguing that it is premature to build a close partnership with Egypt in the absence of any "clarity" from the Brotherhood on regional issues, especially guarantees to preserve the Camp David Accords. For some prominent Middle East experts in Washington, the US could not afford to avoid dialogue with the MB.
Clinton will visit Israel in her way to Cairo, while Burns is slated to lead the US delegation at the US-Israel Strategic Dialogue.
"Now it gets complicated," Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote earlier this week. "For the foreseeable future, US officials will have to navigate between Mursi and the Brotherhood, with their nominally democratic but fundamentally anti-Western agenda; the military, which is doing its best to block the creation of democratic institutions while preserving its lifelines with the Pentagon and Israel; and the secular democratic forces that led last year's revolution, which are broadly pro-Western but are squeezed by both the generals and the clerics."
Some experts are suggesting US officials reaffirm a commitment to support only real democratic transformation and continuous advances in human rights and minority rights in Egypt. It is widely believed that Clinton will raise these issues in her meetings with Egypt's new political elite. Inevitably, relations with Israel and building channels for future contacts between Cairo and Tel Aviv will be high on her agenda.
Washington's pro-Israel lobby is arguing that Congress oppose immediate support for Egypt's new government until it displays its good intentions to Israel. For many Middle East analysts in Washington it is too early to judge the Brotherhood's intentions and how they might translate into policies.
"The Brotherhood has struggled to deal with its own ascendance, as it suffers internal fissures and unprecedented public scrutiny. Not even the Brotherhood's leadership seems quite certain how their new opportunities will ultimately affect their behavior, their ideology, or their internal organization," writes Marc Lynch of George Washington University.
In an election year Barack Obama will be wary of the way his relationship with Egypt's new Islamist president is perceived by the electorate. On Monday, the White House downplayed reports of possible meeting between Obama and Mursi in September.
"[The] president looks forward to meeting the new president of Egypt at the UN General Assembly," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Mursi's own spokesman, Yasser Ali, told reporters on Sunday that Obama, through Burns, had invited Mursi to visit Washington. Carney subsequently said reports of the possible visit were "overstated".
"The president," he said, "will have a chance to meet with or see President Mursi at the UN General Assembly."