Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

US elections in Arab eyes

Regardless of who enters the White House come January, greater Arab solidarity and inter-Arab cooperation will be vital in the near and medium term future, writes Abdel- Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Barely a day goes by without a fellow Arab asking me who I think will win the US presidential elections and which of the two candidates — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — would be better for Arab interests. To the first question I respond that all US opinion polls indicate that Clinton will win, even though the difference in the ratings of the candidates has sometimes narrowed to the margin of error cited in the surveys. However, I also point out that presidential elections in the US are not determined by the popular vote but by the institution known as the Electoral College, which reflects the relative weight of the states and which, so far, favours the Democratic candidate. The article, Losing with Dignity by Michael O’Hanlon that appeared on The Brookings Institution’s Website 21 October voices the prevalent view that the election results are now a foregone conclusion.

Still, there is always room for surprise. There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, public opinion polls are frequently wrong, especially when differences are so narrow. The surveys taken in advance of the Brexit referendum in the UK are a prime example. The EU was so stunned in part because the difference in the polls on the final day was no more than four percentage points, meaning that the referendum could go either way. Secondly, opinion polls in the US could be self-defeating. Because the polls appear so confident that Hillary will win, a portion of her supporters might think it unnecessary to go out and cast their vote, a phenomenon that could ultimately benefit Trump who will be able to count on all his supporters and the fanatics who cheer his views. Thirdly, Americans are infatuated with change. The common feeling might be that now that the Democrats have controlled the White House under Obama for eight years, it’s time for a different experience.

In response to the second question as to whether Clinton or Trump is better for Arab interests, the question is more complicated since, at first glance at least, it might seem more appropriate to ask, “Which of the two would be the least detrimental?” Trump’s record of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hostility is notorious. He was the first US politician to declare that he would ban Muslims (among whom are many Arabs) from entering the US. He also advocated putting American Muslims and Arabs under closer surveillance and singling them out for a special security microscope. In short, Trump has placed Arabs and Muslims at the bottom of his racist scale in which are women, African Americans, Latinos and other nationalities and ethnicities. On top of this, he has advocated levying a kind of tax on Arab petroleum as a way for Washington to secure payment for protecting Arab Gulf countries. This, moreover, would be only part of the protection money the US should exact in return for being a military ally to those countries in the face of threats from other countries of the region.

Although Hillary Clinton has not voiced similar views or attitudes, her views do not differ greatly from those expressed by Obama in an interview with The Atlantic Monthly in which he spoke of the Arab countries’ poor human rights records, lack of democracy and the rest of the well-known litany of negative views. Curiously, in addition to their negative attitudes towards Arabs, both candidates fail to appreciate the role the Arabs play in the realisation of the stability of the region, how crucial they were in the war against the Soviet Union in the past and how crucial they are in the war against terrorism today, and how the Arabs have contributed to preserving the stability of international energy markets. Yet, at the same time, both candidates have declared that they would depend on Arab countries of the Middle East to defeat Daesh (the Islamic State group).

In all events, first glances can be deceptive and, in the best of circumstances, they are never sufficient. Therefore, in answer to the question as to which of the candidates would be better or worse for the Arabs if he or she became president I will say that this depends primarily on how the Arab states themselves manage their relations with Washington. One thing is certain: America’s memory is weak. As a result, it does not remember how instrumental the Arabs were in supplying the quantities of energy that were necessary to fuel Western armies during World War II. Nor does it take into account that no Arab country, apart from the failed experience of South Yemen, fell into the communist camp. Indeed, the Arabs remained a formidable barrier to Soviet expansionism and, moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of the West in the Cold War was, in part, due to Arab collaboration with the US and the West in general.

However, there is more to the matter than a short American memory. It is also about what is happening today and what will happen in the future. In these contexts, the interests that the US and the Arabs have in common are extensive and profound, and promoting them is necessary to both sides. The question of how Arabs manage their relations with the US holds the key to how the US president stands with respect to them. This key, in turn, is heavily contingent on the degree of Arab coherence in their stances on the diverse issues that affect these relations, from the Palestinian question in the past to the confrontation against terrorism in the present, and the stability of oil prices at all times.

It is no exaggeration to state that Egyptian-Saudi relations and Egyptian-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) relations in general form the cornerstone of Arab cohesion. These relations are currently facing three dangers: The danger of fraying due to the revolutionary waves that have been euphemistically called the Arab Spring, the danger of fatigue due to attrition from the consequences of the Arab Spring events combined with the rush of regional powers — Iran above all — to exploit the deterioration in the Arab world, and the danger of mutual suspicion that is fostered deliberately by those who hate this mode of Arab solidarity, and unintentionally on the part of those with narrower outlooks who do not do enough to protect this solidarity. It is particularly regrettable that the recently fabricated crisis in Egyptian-Saudi relations was sparked by a UN Security Council resolution that everyone knew that Russia would obstruct by using its veto and another resolution that had no chance of garnering sufficient votes to pass.

Safeguarding Egyptian-Saudi and Egyptian-GCC relations in general is crucial for the interests of all sides, for restoring stability in the region and even for promoting better relations with outside parties, whether Russia or the US. It is important to bear in mind here not just the longstanding demographic, economic and strategic dimensions of the Egyptian-Saudi relationship but also the fact that this relationship enabled Egypt to halt the tide of the fundamentalist terrorist advance in the region and to put both Cairo and Riyadh at the forefront of the work to shape the future of this region after a tumultuous period.

If the foundations of mutual interests are clear, then the crux of the problem is how to manage the interests, which include relations with the US, which are too important to ignore and which are too potentially dangerous for any one Arab party to handle alone. Not long ago, Egypt was targeted by the current US administration and could not have handled that challenge without help from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Today, JASTA (the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act) points to a direction in US foreign policy regardless of who wins the forthcoming elections. That confrontation will require greater degrees of inter-Arab solidarity and collaborative efforts, which should start today.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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