A 1952 replay?
Will the honeymoon between Washington and Egypt's new Islamist leaders end in bitter recrimination, as did US-Egypt relations following the 1952 Revolution, asks El-Sayed Amin Shalabi
The US has apparently shifted its position on political Islam and its currents. Following decades of scepticism, even paranoia, US officials now seem to be completely at ease with the Islamists who are now in power. No longer viewed in Washington as an imminent threat to US policy in the region, Islamists are being treated, at least for now, as potential partners.
Washington has been monitoring the rise of the Islamists since 2005, when they won 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament. US officials have held meetings with Muslim Brotherhood members and remained familiar with their views. Of course, the interest was motivated by the bitter memories of the Iranian revolution, when the Americans failed to anticipate it and totally underestimated the vehemence of its ideology.
It all boils down to pragmatism. The Americans hedged their bets on the 25 January Revolution as far as they could, and when it was completely clear that the revolution was unstoppable they demanded Hosni Mubarak's resignation. The same happened after the revolution, for as soon as the Islamists emerged as the dominant force, the Americans didn't think twice about which side to take.
No matter what the Americans believe in, or pretend to believe in, when it comes to foreign policy, they will play it safe. This is why US officials had little trouble accepting the new reality that catapulted Islamists to power in Egypt. The fact that Egypt's liberals are divided and weak was factored into the new US political thinking.
American politicians and top brass have been coming to Egypt quite frequently since the revolution. And Hillary Clinton's audience with President Mohamed Mursi was symptomatic of the interest Washington is taking in Egyptian politics. The Americans are especially interested in the position of the new regime on the peace treaty with Israel. And it seems from the way Secretary Clinton reacted to her meeting with Mursi that she has heard some reassurances in this regard. Clinton, who went immediately to Israel afterward, may have relayed the comforting news to the Israelis.
For now, the Americans and Egypt's new regime seem to be getting along just fine. But how long is this going to last?
The current interaction between the Americans and Islamists reminds me of 1952, when the Free Officers were the new kids on the block, and the Americans were hoping to win them over.
At the time, the Americans were busy "containing" the Soviet Union, an effort that involved getting the entire Middle East, if possible, on their side. So when the 1952 revolution broke out, the US was quick to forge close links with the new leaders. The Free Officers, in turn, were thrilled to have Washington on their side. Who else would keep the British off their backs?
For a while, US Ambassador Jefferson Caffery was the favourite diplomat in the circles of the Free Officers. And the latter were serious about buying US weapons and giving the High Dam contract to the Americans.
The honeymoon didn't last long. The Free Officers' brand of nationalism didn't quite sit well with American plans for the region, and Egypt started pulling back from the Americans. Initial friendship turned sour, and animosity was only a few years away.
Will history repeat itself?
Will the US be disappointed with the Islamists and vice versa? If the Islamists allow their doctrinal beliefs to influence their regional policies, conflict with the Americans would be hard to avoid. On issues such as Palestine and Iran, the Islamists of Egypt may not be able to see eye to eye with the Americans. The two may be able to keep their differences to a minimum for at least a while, but the chances for confrontation are too real to be ignored.
The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.