Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Will Trump follow through?

Now is the time for Donald Trump to match his words with deeds. But will he, asks Hussein Haridy

Are we witnessing the dawn of a new world order, different from that post-World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989, or a world of competing great powers at the expense of the interdependent and globalised world that goes back to the Reagan and Thatcher years? And how will the Middle East deal with the consequences of such a radical and abrupt change? Will this change help Middle Eastern countries restore security and political stability? Will it enable them to defeat terrorist groups once and for all, or will it give the latter more room and space to expand and destabilise further the almost 100-year-old state system in the region?

This question came to mind when watching the inaugural address of President Donald Trump on 20 January 2017. Unlike previous inaugural speeches, this one was really unprecedented and unexpected. We had been waiting to hear the newly-elected American president set out what directions American foreign policy would take, particularly in the Middle East. As we sat waiting, previous inaugural speeches came to mind. I, for one, harked back almost 50 years when I was still a teen to the speech delivered by president John F Kennedy, and the hopes it had raised, not only within the United States but also throughout the world. It is true that our expectations were not very ambitious waiting for President Trump to take office, but still, we did not expect to hear him talking about an “American carnage”. As The Financial Times said in its weekend editorial, 21-22 January, “Donald Trump won the US presidential election by portraying America as a nation under mortal threat from without and within,” adding that President Trump “intends to make this a core idea of not just of his campaign, but his presidency as well”.

It is too early to speak about the impact of the Trump vision on the Middle East. But we could envision a new realignment of countries and forces across the region. This process, in truth, already began in the last quarter of last year, but it could accelerate under the new Republican administration of Donald Trump. The break in US regional policy in the Middle East will not only be with that of the previous Democratic administration of Barack Obama, but also with the Republican administration of former president George W Bush. So the probable break cuts across party lines in the United States and it will necessitate bipartisan support in Congress, as a precondition for its success, and also clear and resolute directions on the part of the new administration. If this break comes to pass, it will not be less than a revolution in America’s role in the Middle East. For the past 17 years, Washington has meddled in Middle Eastern politics like never before, and to a disastrous outcome. President Trump spoke about an “American carnage” in his inauguration, however the true carnage has been taking place in the Middle East with the United States following a failed policy of exporting American-style democracy across the region starting with the occupied Palestinian territories and from Libya and Tunisia in North Africa to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to the east. In 17 years the Middle East and parts of North Africa have been turned into killing fields, not unlike Vietnam in the 1960s.

It was a welcome change to hear the new American president say, on 20 January, that: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” In case these words are translated into action in the months to come, there would be a glimmer of hope for the people and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa to start dreaming of rebuilding their countries from the ravages of American-inspired policies and American-led alliances in the region.

Trump pledged that the United States “will reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and unite the civilised world against Islamic radicalism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” Hopefully, in formulating the necessary policies to carry out this pledge, the new Republican administration will be willing to listen to countries like Egypt whose capital, Cairo, is the seat of one of the oldest and most revered Islamic institutions of learning, Al-Azhar. The new American strategy to defeat terrorist groups in the Muslim world should not be left only to American generals and strategists at the White House. The administration of President Donald Trump should distinguish between Islam and terrorism. Putting the two in one basket will doom the strategy from the outset with devastating results for American interests and the security and stability of leading Arab and Muslim countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan. It would lend itself to the false claim made by the forces of political Islam, that Islam as a religion and civilisation is under attack by the “new crusaders”. In this context, the United States is called upon to revisit its policies towards Arab countries like Qatar, and regional powers like Turkey, that have been the spearheads of Bush and Obama policies of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa. These two countries should be forewarned that obstructing or thwarting the new firmness against terrorist groups will have consequences on their respective relations with Washington. They must stop all kinds of support, overt or covert, to terrorist groups.

The first test for the Trump administration in this respect will come in Astana this week with the start of talks led by Russia, Turkey and Iran to reach an agreement between the Syrian government and 14 armed groups to a nation-wide ceasefire in Syria, save in areas where the so-called “Islamic State” terrorist organisation and the former Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, are operating. One question in this context looms large. Will President Trump honour his campaign promise to work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria? To win the war against all terrorist organisations, a certain degree of cooperation between Washington and Moscow is needed.

Another test for the Trump administration will be the position it takes towards Egypt. For the last 18 years, no sitting Egyptian president has gone to Washington in a bilateral context. Former president Hosni Mubarak travelled to Washington in September 2010 at the invitation of former president Obama to take part in a summit that brought together the Jordanian king, the Israeli prime minister and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. An official invitation from President Donald Trump to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will send a strong message, far and wide, that the Unites States under President Trump is changing direction, truly and significantly, in its strategic approach to the Middle East, marking a welcome and much-needed change from the regime change philosophy of two US administrations, one Republican and the other Democratic, that almost destroyed the Middle East.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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