Mursi's maiden US voyage
Obama, as all incumbent presidents facing elections, may not be able to offer much to President Mursi when they first meet this month, but the latter has responsibility to tell the former that Egypt has changed, writes Ayman El-Amir
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi is making his first political visit to the US 24 September -- an annual time honoured ritual maintained by former President Mubarak for 25 years. It will be the first exploratory visit by a democratically elected civilian Egyptian president since the 25 January Revolution that toppled Mubarak. In protocol terms, the visit to New York against the backdrop of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly is not a state visit to the US. However, a meeting with Barack Obama on the sidelines of the assembly will provide opportunity for both men to size up each other and outline their priorities and expectations, without a formal negotiations agenda.
For Obama, US presidential elections in less than two months is the primary concern that, until he is assured of re-election, should not be surpassed by any other issue. The Middle East, the Arab awakening, the Syrian civil war and the Palestinian problem are all foreign policy issues that can be deferred until the US presidential elections are over and Obama is confirmed for a second term. If you take out Israeli security and the cry wolf of the existential threat it faces from Iran, the Middle East's priority is reduced to less than the rising influence of China in East Asia as a counter-weight to US dominance.
Israeli concerns and dictates are American domestic priorities. No US president or presidential aspirant can afford to defy Israeli policy in the Middle East, whether it is the acceleration of settlement expansion in the West Bank, the killing of Palestinians, excavations underneath Al-Aqsa Mosque or the demolition of Palestinian homes. When US Vice-President Joseph Biden visited Israel in 2010 to urge the Israeli government to stop settlement activities in the Palestinian territories in order to spur Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations he was greeted on arrival by an Israeli government's decision authorising the construction of 1600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo -- a neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. President Obama eventually succumbed to Israeli insistence that the cessation of settlement building should not be a precondition for resuming negotiations.
Before his election in 2008, powerful Jewish lobbies and funds softened the position of Obama vis-Ã-vis Israeli policies and practices in the occupied Arab territories. In a sophisticated, double-barrelled approach, Obama was accused of being "anti-Semitic" by some Israelis but was also rewarded with generous campaign donations from his wealthy Jewish friends in Chicago, where he started his political career as a state senator. He eventually won 78 per cent of the American Jewish vote nationwide and learned, early on, the sticks and carrots of the American Jewish politics. It was no surprise, therefore, that at the Democratic Party Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Obama pencilled in the phrase, "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel," which was left out of the party platform. It was adopted in the 2008 convention but was dropped in the current one. This unleashed a hostile barrage of beady-eyed Jewish commentators and editorial writers in the Charlotte newspapers. Obama and the democrats reeled. He had already dropped his administration's opposition to the building of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, even as a political token of goodwill towards the Palestinians to encourage the progress of peace negotiations.
So Mursi should expect to hear from Obama a reiteration of strong US commitment to the security and safety of Israel. He will highlight the perceived intent of the Iranian nuclear programme and request that Egypt join international pressure and sanctions against the Iranian regime in that respect. He would also raise the question of the restrictions on the work of NGOs, both domestic and foreign, in Egypt. This will be the big talk. The small talk will be a commitment to Egypt's democratic political and economic development, citing the recent visit by more than 100 US business and State Department representatives. He will express hope that Egypt will continue to honour and promote the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, and that Egypt will cooperate with other countries in the region to contain terror and extremism, both at home and in the region. He will assure him of US assistance towards that end and that Washington will encourage countries of the region (Gulf Arab states) and international institutions (IMF, the World Bank) to assist Egypt to attract investment and achieve political and economic targets.
It will then be Mursi's turn to explain to Obama the difficulties Egypt is experiencing because of the legacy of the Mubarak regime but also as a reflection of the new environment of free expression and political rights generated by the Egyptian revolution. He would then outline Egypt's efforts to rebuild its economic and political structures and strengthen its anti-terror capacity in northern Sinai. He would also assure Obama that Egypt has no intention to seek to amend the peace treaty with Israel unless Israel agrees to do that.
Mursi should, above all, raise Egypt's concern about the planned US supply to Israel of a new package of some of the most sophisticated US weaponry, especially manufactured for specific Israeli needs. The package would include modern F-25S fighter bombers to replace the obsolete F-15 and F-16 bombers (that will be dumped on Saudi Arabia), airborne fuel supply aircraft, bunker-busting bombs with an underground reach of 60 metres, in addition to conducing 25-nation naval manoeuvres in the Gulf close to the Strait of Hormuz. The package is the result of usual Israeli blackmail in crisis situations. Israel raises a hue and cry about unsubstantiated claims of the purpose of Iranian enhanced enrichment of uranium. The US, which leads the anti-Iranian Western coterie on behalf of Israel, responds by supplying more weapons, training and military hardware on the pretext of assuring Israel's security in the face of Iranian mortal threats. This has been a recurrent scenario over many years and several US administrations since that of Lyndon Johnson.
President Mursi should make it abundantly clear that Iran is not an enemy state to Egypt; that Israeli policies, particularly the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories, leading to a stalemate in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and orchestrated Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, are raising dangerous tensions in the region. Moreover, the supply of modern offensive weapons to Israel could upset the military balance between Egypt and Israel, which would infuriate the Egyptian public and undermine the peace treaty. To reduce the imbalance the US will have either to minimise the weapons package in terms of size and quality or to modernise Egypt's arsenal with the same weapons Israel is receiving and the necessary training. Israel's routine murder of Palestinians, its threats against Iran, its expansionist action on Palestinian land and the US administration's submission to Israeli bullying with the automatic support of a well-greased US Congress increases Egyptian animosity towards the US. Details and plans will be left to a possible state visit by President Mursi to Washington in December or January.
There was a time when Arab envoys and interlocutors pleaded with different US administrations to put a modicum of pressure on Israel to loosen its obstinacy or practices on certain issues. The response from White House officials, usually sympathetic to Israeli policies, was that to float such a possibility in an election year, or a pre-election year, would damage the standing of the president with the Jewish community and could cause him the loss of the presidency. "Better wait for the second term when the president is free from the pressure of the minority [Jewish] vote," they advised both the Arabs and the president. The Jewish lobby made sure that nothing came out in the second term. Years later, a former president, with two terms behind him, would lament the missed opportunity of doing something about the Middle East problem.
There were only two exceptions in recent history: Gerald Ford's threat to "reassess US policy in the (Middle East) region, including Israel". It meant suspension of US arms supplies to Israel and precluding the conclusion of new deals. That was because of Israeli stalling in the 1975 negotiations for the second phase of withdrawal from Sinai. This started what was then called "a war of nerves" between the US and Israel in which 76 pro-Israel US senators pitched in, sending a letter to President Ford to be "sympathetic to the Israeli request for military and economic aid" valued at $2.56 billion. The war lasted for seven months and Ford eventually prevailed.
The second exception was the Camp David Accords mediated by the one-term president Jimmy Carter, leading to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979.
There are no such "free hand" promises from Obama at this time. However, Mursi could initially raise a red flag about the impact of Israeli policies on peace and stability in the region. And he should make it clear that the new post-revolution regime in Egypt will be far from the "yes man" Mubarak used to be.
The writer is former correspondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.