The Middle East Channel

Complicating the transition in US-Egyptian relations

Beyond the immediate dilemmas – how and how hard to push Mubarak to stand down, what to say in public versus in private, and how best to pressure the US-backed Egyptian security forces – the transition period that lies ahead for Egypt will hold its own complicating factors for Washington policymakers. First, it needs to ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Beyond the immediate dilemmas – how and how hard to push Mubarak to stand down, what to say in public versus in private, and how best to pressure the US-backed Egyptian security forces – the transition period that lies ahead for Egypt will hold its own complicating factors for Washington policymakers.

First, it needs to be remembered that this is not primarily about the US (nor should it be), this is about Egyptians empowering themselves. Nevertheless, the US and other international actors will have a role to play and will have to chart a new policy course for relations with Egypt, and this will in no small measure set a trend for the region as a whole.

One minor luxury that the administration should have is that there are not significant or obviously apparent domestic political pressures being brought to bear on this issue. Both parties, Democrat and Republican, have made nice with dictators in the Arab world while paying limited lip service to democracy. There is no victory lap, freedom coupon to clip as was the case in the former Soviet bloc, there is no Arab democracy political lobby, even if the Arab American community will be largely thrilled by what is happening in the region. The one exception to this is the role that some traditional pro-Israel groups may play in urging a go-slow conservatism to a US embrace of change in the Middle East.

The lack of enthusiasm on the part of some of the pro-Israel community is an understandable if regrettable phenomenon. Israel is a strong status quo power in the region and Israel’s establishment considers the rule of Western-oriented dictators (especially those with strong ties to U.S. aid and the U.S. military) to have served Israel’s interests. President Mubarak has been a key facilitator of Israel’s agenda in the region – partly due to his support for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty but primarily centered around his maintenance of a  "go-nowhere" peace process which helps shield Israel from international criticism while giving Egypt the appearance of being a useful ally to the U.S..

In recent years, this alliance has extended beyond preventing pressure on Israel and grown to include support for Israel’s closure of Gaza (Egypt followed suit on its own border with Gaza), helping besiege Hamas, and playing host to the occasional peace gala in order to maintain the fiction that all of this "peace processing" might lead somewhere.

Indeed, events in Egypt have been met by near hysteria in the Israeli press. Splashy headlines included "We’re on our own," "Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak," and "A bullet in the back from Uncle Sam", highlighting Israel’s growing isolation, the potential rise of Islamist forces and withering criticism of the U.S. Government. According to Israeli press reports, the Netanyahu government has been lobbying Western capitals to adopt a supportive approach to the Mubarak regime

This might provide a particularly tricky balancing act for the Obama administration, in addition to the more basic and blunt question of navigating from support for a dictatorial regime to building close relations with a more democratic regime, if one is to emerge.

In their public pronouncements, senior administration officials have placed an emphasis on there being stability and an orderly transition. Certainly as an aspiration that makes sense, albeit a difficult one to realize in any situation when a long-time autocratic ruler is deposed. More problematic, is that this particular choice of language too closely dovetails the narrative of the existing regime. One of the few cards that an authoritarian regime has left to play in this kind of scenario is the stability card – the threat of chaos and collapse, and even of government falling into sinister hands. It is this fear-mongering path that Mubarak has clearly chosen as his justification for curfews, crackdowns and a communications lockdown. Credible sources report that the looting and acts of violence against property may well be orchestrated and enacted by the regime itself in order to try to create a "need for stability" imperative for its continued stay in power. When it comes to the Muslim world, conjuring up foreboding alternatives to the ancien regime, almost always end up being about the supposed threat of radical Islam – knowing how well this tends to play in the West, particularly in the US.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is an important part of the Egyptian political landscape, a leading opposition force that was previously represented in parliament (before the ruling NDP party put its vote-rigging habit on steroids in last elections – November, 2010). The MB neither initiated nor led the current round of protests, but they have joined them and are likely to be a prominent player in a democratic Egypt (neither a dominant nor marginal role seems most likely).

The ability to use the Islamist boogieman to fuel US fears draws on a combination of unfamiliarity and ignorance, cultural arrogance, and real policy differences on regional issues, notably on Israel. That Arab publics left to their own devices should freely choose to support religious conservatives should largely be none of our business: Americans in many states make a similar choice at the ballot box. That American policymakers have so few links into the MB or serious channels of communication is simply a failure of American policy.

Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamist parties, has warned against US policymakers being misled by a tendency towards "Ikwanophobia" (ikwan is Arabic for the Muslim Brothers’ movement). One cannot support participatory democratic politics in the Arab world while being totally allergic to the role that democratic Islamists will play. These movements are part of the legitimate political mix. They are more often than not at loggerheads with Al Qaeda, and far from being Al Qaeda-lite, they are frequently the most effective bulwark against Al Qaeda-style extremism.

Sadly, some of those criticizing the Obama administration today for insufficient assertiveness on the Arab democracy front, themselves failed the most basic test when in a position of power and influence. Elliott Abrams, writing in this weekend’s Washington Post argued, "Bush had it right and that the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mindset is nothing short of a tragedy… we cannot deliver democracy to the Arab states but we can make our principles and policies clear." Yet when he was deputy national security advisor and democratic change came to the Arab world via elections – albeit in the non-state of the Palestinian Authority – Abrams was a key architect of the ill-considered and anti-democratic policy of promoting a putsch against the elected Hamas government. The conclusion drawn in the region from this episode, that the US only supported democracy for Arabs when the outcome suited it, was a serious setback to America’s ability to credibly promote political change. It didn’t help much either that the Bush administration had invaded an Arab country, ushering in a long period of chaos, and was so indifferent to the freedoms being denied to Palestinians under occupation.

One might claim that the Obama administration is already overseeing a possible second domestically-inspired (as opposed to US-military-invasion induced) toppling of an Arab dictator and transition to greater democracy – but that would be as dishonest as the triumphalist neoconservative claims of vindication following events in Tunisia and Egypt.

The truth is that American administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, have provided cover, support, aid, and weapons to repressive Arab regimes, and with increasingly counterproductive results. Not only did the US squander credibility with Arab publics and appear hypocritical, the support given to these regimes actually became a valuable recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.

All of these trends and more were being taken to increasingly absurd heights in the case of Egypt.  Egypt’s heavy-handed security and intelligence apparatus probably created more terrorists than it intercepted. Egypt ended up being a not particularly useful ally to have in the region. So wrapped up in its own succession and repression issues did Egypt become that it simply lost the ability to influence and shape events in the broader Middle East. In recent years, when regional mediation was needed, others stepped in: for instance Qatar, as was the case in Lebanon and elsewhere; Saudi Arabia successfully (if briefly) achieved a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and unity government (Egypt has conspicuously dragged these talks out to no conclusion for years); and Turkey in facilitating Israeli-Syrian peace talks. In some ways, the entire region and Arab state system appears off-balance when faced with such a weak Egyptian role.

Mubarak’s Egypt cannot lead or be a model for a pro-American axis of moderation (the very notion would have most Arabs scoffing), rather the regime has given a bad name to  being America’s ally and to making peace with Israel.

It is this last point, the Egypt-US-Israel triangle that will become a most vexing factor as a policy for transition takes shape in Washington.

The regional utility that Mubarak’s Egypt maintained became more narrowly focused on the short-term interests of the Government of Israel. Some have described Mubarak as a cornerstone of US efforts to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict, but that is inaccurate. Mubarak’s Egypt became the cornerstone of something far-less worthy: an effort to maintain a farcical peace process that sustained Israel’s occupation and settlement expansion, that sustained an image of Egypt’s usefulness as the indispensable peace-builder, and that allowed the US to avoid making hard choices.

As part of any transition the US should certainly strive hard to insure that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is strictly adhered to, and it is a goal that most are confident can be achieved. But it should not demand that Egypt continue to be the loyal servant of a thoroughly discredited peace process. The US should be careful not to view transition in Egypt too much through the prism of Israeli demands.

Beyond the basic and legitimate position of respecting existing treaties and avoiding use or threats of force, degrees of Israelophilia should not be the litmus test for judging the acceptability or otherwise of governments in the Arab world.  It is true that a political system more representative of Arab public will is likely to be less indulgent of Israel’s harsh policy towards the Palestinians (and less belligerent towards Iran also). As Stephen Kinzer wrote in this piece, "Accepting that Arabs have the right to elect their own leaders means accepting the rise of governments that do not share America’s pro-Israel militancy."

Turkey might be looked to as a model – and it is encouraging that in his round of weekend calls, President Obama chose to speak to Turkish PM Erdogan. Turkey has maintained relations with Israel (albeit chilled ones) and has certainly maintained its relationship with the US and membership in NATO, all while asserting a more independent and publicly popular regional policy, notably in opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

As the region reconfigures itself, the US should help Israel adjust to a new reality – convincing Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories would be the best option, but just explaining to Israel that America now has to deal with an Arab politics that is in its post-dictatorship phase and will henceforth have to be more responsive to public opinion – that will be a necessity.

It won’t be easy politically, but getting it right in this period of re-adjustment will have to include a less Israel-centric calibration of U.S. policy.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of the Middle East Channel.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, the previous director of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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