The United States and the Muslim Brotherhood are not as far apart as they can sometimes seem, writes Bassem Hassan
The Egyptian presidential race kept many people on their toes in anticipation of the changes it would bring, among others things to Egyptian-American relations. But two months after President Mohamed Mursi was sworn in, it is more or less business as usual. American officials are still welcome in Cairo, where they exchange compliments with their Egyptian counterparts and now also with the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders. For his part, Mursi is packing for his first trip to Washington. Both anxieties about, and hopes for, a major change in Egyptian-American relations have been misplaced, based on the rhetoric of the Brotherhood and of American officials.
Less attention has been paid to the long history of cooperation between the United States and Sunni Muslim conservative regimes and groups. Statements meant for the appeasement of domestic constituencies aside, the American-Sunni conservative alliance has been one of the most enduring features of politics in the Arab and Muslim worlds. In fact, America's entry to the Arab world in 1945 was through Saudi Arabia, the chief patron of Sunni-conservatism in the Arab world. In the post-World War II world, both America and Sunni conservatives found common enemies in nationalist leaders such as former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt and Sukarno in Indonesia.
Then came the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The United States, the Saudis, the Pakistanis and Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, generously chipped in to this inter-faith project against the infidel communists that had taken over Afghanistan. Many believed that the events of 9/11 were some type of closure to this not-so-secret love affair. However, they were wrong, as America quickly re-established it: as US journalist Seymour Hersh revealed in The New Yorker magazine a few years ago, the two reunited to confront the Syria-Hizbullah-Iran alliance, and after Israel's failure to destroy Hizbullah in Lebanon, Washington decided to put its money on Sunni-conservatism instead.
The cooperation between America and its allies in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups to topple the Syrian regime, now denoted as Alawi rather than pan-Arab or socialist as part of the manufacturing of a new terminology that fits the current confrontation better, is just the latest manifestation of this renewed partnership. Even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has felt it was time to reconnect with his roots and to abandon his previous partnership plans with Syria and Iran.
During the brief breakup following the events of 9/11, cooperation between America and Sunni-conservatism did not come to a complete halt, as evinced by the collaboration between Iraqi politician Tareq Al-Hashimi's Islamic Party and the American occupation authorities in Iraq. Hence, when it comes to exploring the prospects of Egyptian-American relations a good place to start is by examining the interests of the Brotherhood and the United States, rather than looking at their public statements. After all, politicians, including pious brethren, tend to lie whenever it is expedient for them to do so.
For some time to come the Brotherhood in Egypt will have only one goal: to stay in power. Other political groups, with the possible exception of the Salafis, lack the means to challenge them in any upcoming elections. Using the state machinery, now under their control, the Brotherhood will try to ensure that this situation does not change anytime soon. This leaves them with two hurdles to climb over: Egypt's collapsed economy and the military.
The latter still has the capacity to significantly influence the outcome of the political process in this country, the brethren's jubilation following the recent changes in its leadership notwithstanding. America's support is also crucial to overcoming these challenges. Fortunately for the Brotherhood, America is more than willing to help since its main interests in Egypt -- the Suez Canal, the treaty with Israel, the establishment of a pluralist political system, the deeper integration of Egypt in the globalised capitalist system and the maintenance of close relations with the army -- are not threatened by the Brotherhood's ascendancy. Quite the contrary: the brethren could serve these interests.
The Brotherhood could bestow on US-favoured neo-liberal policies and the American-Egyptian alliance two types of legitimacy, one electoral and one religious. The Sadat-Mubarak regime failed to accomplish this, and the liberal parties supported by the business community are not up to the job. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, seems more than willing to play ball. It long ago abandoned the anti-capitalist spirit espoused by some of its ideologues in the mid-20th century. Its current leadership includes ardent free-market supporters like Khairat El-Shater and Hassan Malik. The latter, as the US magazine Businessweek aptly put it, can "easily blend in with the Wall Street crowd".
The current debate about a future IMF loan to Egypt is also quite revealing in this respect. A few years ago Mursi, then an MP, slammed such loans as un-Islamic. Ironically, today he is touting an IMF loan as his first economic achievement. American visitors who frequented the Brotherhood's headquarters after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak must have realised that they see eye-to-eye with the brethren when it comes to the economy. In contrast, Ahmed Shafik, Mursi's competitor in the elections, expressed a commitment to the role of the state in the economy. In so doing, he was in line with the traditional view of the military, which averted the privatisation of the main state-owned banks in Egypt in the past. The military itself also runs what could be considered to be an "informal public sector" that has so far evaded the IMF. These assets are a coveted prize for the Brotherhood, which did not share in the spoils of the privatisations carried out under Mubarak.
The Brotherhood and the United States also share an interest in curtailing the political influence of the army. The former's reasons are quite obvious; the latter's require some elaboration. The United States has what is best described as a love-hate relationship with the Egyptian military. On the one hand, it is its main weapons supplier and training provider, a position that it is planning to maintain. On the other hand, it is not in favour of the army's economic role in Egypt and is concerned about its political intentions.
It suffices, in this respect, to highlight the fact that the military made a series of decisions that alarmed Washington more than the Brotherhood's rhetoric, for instance by allowing Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, closing down major American NGOs in Cairo, terminating gas sales to Israel and ending the Gaza blockade. Establishing a pluralist political system consisting of pro-capitalism parties, a Western-funded civil society and a corporate media would be the most efficient means to contain the army's influence in Egypt. Needless to say, the Brotherhood would also benefit from any such arrangement.
Only one thorny issue remains: relations with Israel. Yet, even here the difference is about appearance rather than substance. Mursi has repeatedly declared his intention to respect Egypt's international agreements, including the treaty with Israel. During the presidential campaign, some of his supporters went as far as to consider abiding by the treaty to be a religious obligation as long as Israel also respected it. Moreover, Mursi has been keen to avoid any discussion of the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), the most outstanding manifestation of economic normalisation with Israel. The Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv has not been recalled, and the Israeli flag is still flying in Cairo's skies. Most importantly, the Egyptian army, which according to the brethren is now under Mursi's full control, is coordinating its current campaign in Sinai with Israel.
The fact that Mursi wants to keep these positions off the radar to appease his domestic and regional constituencies is quite understandable; hence, his aides' frantic denial that he exchanged letters with his Israeli counterpart. But the Obama administration, for its own equally understandable reasons, also needs him to come out of the closet. Unfortunately for Mursi, his first visit to Washington will come shortly before the American presidential elections, meaning that the American-Egyptian-Israeli triangle will be a news item in the American media, at least for a few days.
Obama will probably encourage Mursi to be more open about his orientation, maybe by visiting a staunch pro-Israel institute as the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi did on his first visit to Washington after the Islamists' victory in Tunisia. Obama would appreciate such a gesture if for no other reason than to thwart Republican Party attacks that accuse him of letting down an erstwhile ally and of himself being a Muslim. This sounds like a fair price for the Obama administration's recognition of Mursi, despite the irregularities that marred the Egyptian elections, such as the repeated threats of violence if Mursi lost, his supporters' sectarian propaganda, and the prevention of Christians in some areas from voting. Furthermore, the administration did not protest against Mursi's assuming both the executive and legislative powers in Egypt, which flies in the face of the principle of checks and balances. So, will Mursi acquiesce, or will he hide behind a beard?
The United States courted the Brotherhood even before Mubarak's fall. But it takes two to tango. So far the Brotherhood has been happy to let America lead, while trying to create the impression, especially at home, that it is seeking new dance partners during four and 36-hour visits to Tehran and Beijing, respectively. Will it manage to keep up this image for long? It seems doubtful. Mursi's aides should make sure they pack his favourite dancing shoes, as all eyes will be turned on him when he makes his first appearance in Washington later this month.
The writer is a political analyst.