A new era for US-Egypt relations?

Issandr El Amran   في السبت 09 ابريل 2011


 

A new era for US-Egypt relations?
 

It is too early to know what the outcome of the 25 January revolution will be. We know that, for now, there have already been major improvements: presidents can no longer serve life terms, the mafia that ran the government has begun to be dismantled, and organizations like State Security have taken a major blow. But we also know that missteps are all too easily made, that many cronies of the former regime hope to be absolved by the emerging one, and that the military council now in charge has been ambiguous at best with regards to its intentions.

A constant battle is being waged to maintain momentum and ensure that over 850 Egyptians did not die just for slight improvements and that their memory is honored with real, definitive change. No doubt this will take time, perhaps more time than, in the current revolutionary atmosphere, we are prepared to imagine.

For the most part, this new Egypt will be formed by domestic debates: the interplay between political forces, institutions and the desires of ordinary people. But it will also be the result of Egypt's relationship with the outside world, and perhaps first and foremost its strategic patron of 35 years, the United States, as well as the West more generally.

At a recent meeting of political activists, I heard two radically different versions of what relations with the West might look like. One person, a prominent Islamist politician grizzled by years of imprisonment, delivered an almost caricatural diatribe against the West, blaming its support of the Mubarak regime on a need to suppress the Arab world. On the other side of the room, a young liberal activist hoped that a new page could be turned and believed that the West would learn from its mistakes and support a fledgling democracy.

Both are probably wrong. The narrative whereby the West orchestrated a careful conspiracy to keep down the Arab world by imposing Mubaraks is no truer than the idea of that democracy and its promotion will suddenly become a priority for strategic planners in Washington, London or Paris. The truth is more humdrum: For a host of complicated reasons, ranging from their domestic politics to colonial legacy to the need for a stable oil-producing Middle East, the West preferred to deal with tyrants whose behavior was predictable and, at least most of the time, friendly. But it’s worth considering that the tyrants were often indigenously created, not the invention of an outside power. Lack of democracy in the region is partly related to outside intervention, but also fundamentally rooted in its own political, cultural and developmental dynamics.

The West and the United States in particular will continue to prefer dealing with a friendly and predictable regime. It will not take great risks to ensure that the next government of Egypt is a democratic one, but it will try to nudge things in that direction when possible. This, at least, is what appears to be the attitude of the Obama administration towards Egypt. We need only look at Washington’s tacit support for repression of the uprising in Bahrain to know that, in different circumstances, things would be different.

In Egypt, Washington sees many things: an influential power in the region; a military partner that can help reduce logistical headaches for the US military (for instance by granting overflight rights and refueling facilities, as it has done throughout the occupation of Iraq); a country with a combustible mix of social, economic and political ills; the host of the Suez Canal; and a place for which the American public has a certain fondness (for a variety of reasons ranging from the Pyramids to the infectious enthusiasm of Tahrir revolutionaries to the presence of a large Christian minority). It’s also worth remembering that America’s foreign policy system is complex and multi-layered, with the US-Egypt bilateral relationship having increasingly been dominated by military and security imperatives in recent years. Official attitudes in Washington today are shaped as much by the Pentagon and CIA as they are by Congress, the State Department and the White House.

Because Pentagon strategists tend to plan for everything, they also fear that Egypt might become another Iran, or even another Somalia. And they know from experience that the US will inevitably be drawn into Egyptian affairs, partly because of the logic of its imperial military posture towards the Middle East (secure oil routes, contain the rogue states, protect the Gulf monarchies, etc.), but also because the Egyptian government is already asking for help. Those who think Egypt can now, for instance, break off the Camp David agreement should be asking how receptive Washington will then be to supporting Egypt's borrowing on the international markets or its requests for World Bank or IMF funding.

It will take time for Egypt to develop a new relationship with the United States. The patron-client relationship in which Egypt was increasingly pigeonholed over the last decades, in part because its foreign policy sought to defend a regime rather than advance the interests of a nation, will continue for some time. To re-balance it — hopefully so that Egypt can be more like Turkey, which has closer military ties to the United States (through NATO) but can afford to be more independent in its foreign policy (a good corrective to American hubris in recent years) — will take time, careful planning and a clever reinvention of what Egyptian foreign policy stands for. But it need not be couched in either reflexive hostility or naiveté

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