Egypt watchers and Middle East analysts sought
to put the new president’s words in context. Morsi is weak. He needs to secure
his base and play to public sentiment while he consolidates his power. He does
not really intend to pursue Abdel Rahman’s release from U.S. federal prison.
Washington would be better served to disregard what was clearly a calculated
political move. There are more pressing issues in the U.S.-Egypt relationship
than a sick and aging militant.
This sober analysis is entirely accurate, but it
sidesteps the central change that has occurred in Egypt since the revolution.
Hosni Mubarak could largely ignore public opinion because Egyptian citizens did
not have a mechanism for holding their leaders accountable. Now they do.
Current and future leaders who disregard public sentiment will do so at their
The consequence for the United States is likely
to be a greatly changed relationship with Egypt. The strategic alignment and
the partnership in pursuing Arab-Israeli peace are at best going to get more
difficult to manage. At worst, this cooperation will come to an end altogether.
Although some analysts are quick to claim that the coming transformation of the
U.S.-Egypt relationship is a function of the Muslim Brotherhood’s longstanding
anti-American posture, it is more accurately a result of politics and a
reflection of Egyptian public opinion. Cairo-Washington ties and the
relationship between Mubarak’s Egypt and Israel were profoundly unpopular among
Egyptians. In a more open era of Egyptian politics, Washington will discover
that over time Cairo will be considerably less willing to support American
goals and interests in the Middle East.
The United States (and by extension Israel) have
long been important and generally negative factors in Egyptian politics. The
January 25 uprising was not about the United States, although it was about
national empowerment. For Egyptian revolutionaries, leftists, Islamists, and
many liberals, the strategic ties between Washington and Cairo made no sense on
both nationalist and strategic grounds. Indeed, the regime that Mubarak led,
which had been handed down to him from Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, was
founded in part on opposition to foreign domination.
In addition, as time went by, the
Egyptian-American relationship had, in the words of the Muslim Brotherhood’s
2010 electoral platform, “rendered Egypt a secondary power” in a region that it
had previously led. Shrewdly, Egypt’s opposition, especially the Brotherhood,
used the Cairo-Washington connection to undermine Mubarak’s regime. The burden
on Morsi—if he would like to be re-elected—is to demonstrate that he represents
a clean break. The fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)
gutted the president’s powers through a constitutional decree means that Morsi’s
only source of authority is his ability to appeal to the street and
subsequently harvest votes. That partly explains his rhetoric on Sheikh Omar
Abdul Rahman. The issue will not lead to a breach in relations with the U.S.,
but it does add a certain amount of tension.
More broadly, Mubarak’s Egypt was a linchpin in
a regional political order—that also included Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia,
and the small Gulf states—that helped the United States realize its regional
and even global interests. It’s unlikely that President Morsi, unlike Mubarak,
will order Egypt’s security services to stop and literally take apart a North
Korean vessel transiting through the Suez Canal based on an American suspicion
that the ship was carrying missiles destined for Syria. Whereas Mubarak seemed
willing—albeit with a measure of reluctance and public protestation—to do
America’s bidding, Morsi simply cannot. He has to be a better nationalist, a
better steward of Egypt’s interests, and more mindful of Egypt’s place in the
Middle East. If he is not, Morsi will become a short-lived local experiment in
Islamist power and be replaced by someone who can approximate the deeply held
ideals and aspirations of the newly empowered Egyptian electorate.
President Barack Obama and his administration
handled the Egyptian uprising about as well as could be expected. What was
happening on the streets of Egypt during those eighteen days in
early 2011 was unprecedented. To be sure, Egypt has seen mass protests before
but, with the exception of a brief moment during the 1977 bread riots, the
regime’s durability never seemed in doubt. From the very start, the January 25
protests seemed different, which is why the accusation that Obama “lost Egypt”
is so misplaced. The United States had no way of altering the trajectory of
events once the uprising began. It was impossible to “save Mubarak”—as valuable
an ally as he may have been over the previous thirty years—without encouraging
massive bloodshed. This was not something that Obama was prepared to do. So,
the United States threw its support behind those who want to live in a more
Until Morsi’s election in June, U.S. policy was
more an aspiration—the development of a democratic Egypt—than an actual policy.
To the extent that Washington has a policy toward a more democratic Egypt, it
is to engage, adjust, and hope that its interests—over-flight rights, expedited
transit through the Suez Canal and other security-related logistical support,
and peace along the Egyptian-Israeli frontier—will remain intact.
It is unclear how the United States will go
about securing these interests. U.S. policy has been predicated on a deal with
President Mubarak and the Egyptian military that conflicted with Washington’s
stated desire to see democracy take root on the banks of the Nile. If
Washington pursues a similar approach where it relies on the military to help
achieve its goals, this contradiction will once again make the United States an
important, but essentially negative, factor in Egyptian politics. In the short
run, SCAF is intent on maintaining its autonomy and seems willing to continue
to accept U.S. aid, but that does not mean that Washington has leverage over
the generals. Washington needs them as much as the Egyptian Ministry of Defense
needs the Pentagon.
Indeed, assistance—both military and economic—cuts
both ways for the United States. Washington’s annual $1.3 billion aid package
does appear to have some influence over important players at critical moments,
but it is largely a negative factor, and will likely have diminishing returns
in a more democratic Egypt. In addition, the U.S. Congress is wary of both the
Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF. This will almost certainly result in a bruising
battle on Capitol Hill about the future of the aid—something most Egyptians
seem to be ambivalent about, anyway.
As much as official
Washington hopes it can muddle through Egypt’s prolonged transition with its
interests intact, the American position in Egypt will change and it will wane.
And any side deal–which would have the elected civilian government tending to
domestic issues while Egypt’s generals ensure U.S. strategic interests—will
prove unsustainable. Washington must fully come to terms with a new and perhaps