“I almost had to sit down when I heard that,” said NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, in response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement in September that he does not consider Egypt an ally. “That is a significant change in the perspective of Washington toward this country, the biggest country in the Arab world,” Engel added.
I am unconvinced by the widely accepted narrative that Obama’s striking words were a reaction to violent clashes at the American embassy in Cairo over a U.S.-made Islamophobic film. I believe Obama was referring generally to relations with post-revolution Egypt.
The clashes were simply not a big enough event to warrant a change in relations. Similar clashes in Libya were far worse, resulting in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and other embassy staff, but Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swiftly said that this would not affect relations with Libya.
Both embassies were breached for the same reason, in neither case was there government involvement in the attacks, and both governments condemned them and tried to stop them, so why treat Egypt differently?
Libya’s revolution owes its success to NATO (including American) support, so it has reoriented itself towards the U.S. after decades of hostility under the late Muammar Qaddafi. By contrast, Egypt’s revolution succeeded on its own, reflecting widespread revulsion not just towards Hosni Mubarak’s totalitarian rule, but also his subservience to the U.S. Indeed, Obama came under heavy criticism for his initial silence over the uprising.
As such, Mubarak’s successor - Egypt’s first democratically elected president - has naturally been attempting to achieve a more independent, sovereign - in his words “balanced” - foreign policy. Mursi is “eager to build a high profile in foreign affairs to shore up his new presidency domestically,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“Progress on Egypt’s internal challenges...is going to be very slow. And there will be many political and economic disappointments along the way. Regaining Egyptian prestige regionally and internationally, largely lost under Mubarak, will help Mursi in the difficult months and years ahead.”
The result has been robust statements that we would never have heard from Mubarak. “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region” by backing Israel and regional dictatorships, Mursi told the New York Times.
The U.S. should fundamentally change its approach towards, repair its relations with, and have greater respect for the Arab world, he added. When asked if he considered the U.S. an ally, Mursi answered: “That depends on your definition of ally,” reportedly smiling at his deliberate echo of Obama.
In the past, “Egypt could not move except with instructions from America and in a direction that benefited America’s interests,” said Abdallah el-Ashaal, a former Egyptian deputy foreign minister. “Today Egypt does not require permission from Washington.”
For all the talk of supporting democracy in the Middle East, the loss of a client state has evidently displeased the U.S. “We have to send money to certain countries to buy them, and we do,” said Fox News presenter Bill O’Reilly in October. The hope is that Egypt is no longer up for sale.
However, under the present circumstances, the distance between Obama and Mursi hurts neither president. Mursi faces domestic pressure to prove his independence, and in the latest Pew polls, 76% of Egyptians viewed the Obama administration unfavourably. He may not be swayed by U.S. Congressional threats to cut aid to Egypt, the second-biggest recipient (around $1.5 billion annually) after Israel.
Almost 85% of that aid goes to the military, the establishment that spawned Mubarak, whose persistent crackdowns against the Muslim Brotherhood will be fresh in the mind of Mursi, who hails from that party and has challenged - so far successfully - the extent of military influence over domestic affairs. Mursi is helped in this regard by widespread Egyptian discontent against the military over its reluctance to cede power to civilian rule.
U.S. military aid, which underpins the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, “will continue to flow (for now) because without it we’ll have no influence; the Israelis want it to continue; and after providing so much aid to authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, how can we now cut assistance as Egypt tries to democratize?” writes Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, and is the author of ‘The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.’
“And are we not going to do what we can to support Egypt economically - debt forgiveness, etc. - even if the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders don’t quickly become Jacksonian democrats? Let’s admit it. We’re stuck.”
The fact that Mursi visited China and Saudi Arabia before the U.S. may signal an attempt to lessen American influence on Egypt, particularly given the very fragile state of his country’s economy, China’s ascendance as the world’s next superpower, and Saudi Arabia’s status as a regional economic and political powerhouse.
So too might his emphasis on regional solutions to the Middle East’s problems, even trying to involve Tehran and improve Egyptian-Iranian relations, much to the U.S.’s irritation.
Obama faces his own domestic pressures, particularly in an election year. In a tight race against Mitt Romney, he is under Republican attack for allegedly being too soft on foreign policy, particularly in relation to the Middle East. Furthermore, a Pew poll taken in July revealed that 17% of Americans believe Obama is Muslim (with all the inherent negative connotations), up 5% from when he took office.
So to him, it makes electoral sense to distance himself from a president with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. Mursi wanted to meet with Obama at the White House during his visit to the U.S. in September, “but he received a cool reception, aides to both presidents said,” the New York Times reported. “Mindful of the complicated election-year politics of a visit with Egypt’s Islamist leader,” Mursi dropped his request.
“At home, amidst the strident debate of the U.S. presidential election campaign,” Obama “loses no friends by distancing himself from the Egyptian authorities,” said BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.
However, while Egyptian-American relations are undoubtedly changing, both countries are well aware of the mutual importance of that relationship. The U.S. benefits from good relations with the Arab world’s most populous country, among its most influential, and one of only two Arab states to have a peace treaty with Israel.
Mursi has pledged to maintain all treaties and conventions to which Egypt is a party, says he sees his country and the U.S. as “real friends,” has praised Obama for supporting the Arab Spring, and hopes for “harmonious, peaceful coexistence” between Arabs and Americans. Any U.S. government would do well to nurture those sentiments.
Likewise, while justifiably striving for an independent foreign policy, Egypt will not want to antagonise the world’s only superpower, which has great influence over the global financial institutions from which Egypt is seeking vital economic assistance.
Meanwhile, Obama should recall Clinton’s meeting with Mursi in July, when she reaffirmed Washington’s “strong support” for the Egyptian people and their shift to civilian rule.
Let us hope this was not just lip service, for it is certainly ironic that the “leader of the free world” should be seen to downgrade relations with a democratic Egypt, when its previous dictatorship enjoyed such close ties with the U.S. American leaders should realise that it is better to have friends than subordinates.
(Sharif Nashashibi is a London-based writer and Arab commentator. This article originally appeared in The Middle East magazine.)