|US-Egypt Relations After the Mubarak Government: What’s Next?|
Who would have thought that a young Tunisian who set himself on fire to protest corruption and repression could change the fate of millions of Arabs living under oppressive regimes? Who would have expected an uprising in a small and relatively isolated country like Tunisia to create a ‘domino effect’ that tormented Egypt, one of the most important countries in the region?
To the surprise of the world, the Tunisian revolution spread over Egypt where unprecedented street protests took place. Consequently, protesters, who were calling for “change”, succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak and ending his 30-year of dictatorial rule. The fall of Mubarak and the success of Egyptian revolution also encouraged others in the region to take to the streets. Today, popular uprisings are being witnessed in countries like Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. An ‘Arab Spring’ is being witnessed, in which “Arab Exceptionalism” is now coming to an end. It is a commonly held belief that the Arab world has been exempt from the global democratization dynamics in the post-Cold War era, unable to rid themselves of their dictators. However, today’s Arab world is experiencing genuinely popular and democratic revolutions. Although the wave of revolutions seems to have stalled in Libya (as the situation got more complicated with foreign military intervention), the “Spirit of Tahrir Square” is most likely to inspire other peoples to revolt against their respective unpopular and anti-democratic regimes. As a result, the political configuration in Middle East will most likely be subject to further change.
Most certainly, the effects of these revolutions cannot be contained within the domestic realm. These regime changes will have serious regional and global repercussions, transforming the nature of international politics in Middle East. Therefore, one of the biggest questions will be these countries’ relations with the outside (especially Western) world in the new era. This article will focus on the possible directions US-Egypt relations might take in the post-Mubarak era. Egypt-US relations has shaped the Middle East politics in the last 30 years. With Mubarak gone, the biggest question is the future of US-Egypt relations and what it means for other powers in the region.
Egypt, under Mubarak, was one of the most important US allies in Middle East. Since 1979, it has been the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, with US aid to Egypt totaling around $60 billion. A large portion of this steady sum has been traditionally allocated to military. The United States has also been the major weapons supplier and trainer of the Egyptian army. So how did Mubarak ensure continued US support in spite of his poor human rights record? In other words, why has the US kept funding a dictatorship, while it was waging wars to “bring democracy” to other countries?
The foundation of the US-Egypt alliance lies within the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty that was signed following the Camp David Accords. In other words, Egypt owed generous US support primarily to its friendly relations with Israel. It is no secret that the national interests and security of Israel has been the top agenda item for American foreign policy makers. On the US Department of State website, US-Israel relations are described as follows: “commitment to Israel's security and well being has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East since Israel's founding in 1948.”(1) Therefore, sustaining the 1979 peace treaty, which has been considered as vital in counterbalancing “hostile Arab/Islamic states” and promoting Israel’s security, was attributed utmost significance by the US. In short, securing Israel and sustaining the peace treaty was one of the pillars of US-Egypt alliance.
Secondly, the autocratic Mubarak regime was supported due to fear of the alternative. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was the most organized opposition in Egypt. Therefore, for the US policymakers, not supporting Mubarak meant inadvertently creating a power vacuum in Egypt that could be filled by the MB-led conservatives. For the United States, this was a dangerous alternative. The rise of conservatives was seen as a threat to vital US interests in the region. Therefore, in order to keep the conservatives at bay, the US supported Mubarak and his efforts to oppress opposition. Consequently, Mubarak instrumentalized the western fear of fundamentalism as a pretext to ensure US support and maintain his dictatorial rule.
Thirdly, the US considered Egypt as a key actor in maintaining regional stability. A strong regional player, Egypt is an important country in Middle East that is commonly seen as a “leader” in the Arab world. Therefore, a pro-Western Egypt was crucial in moderating the actions of other regional powers. In other words, the US wanted to capitalize on Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab world and promote a moderate voice amongst the Arab nations. (2)
Now that this status quo is being challenged, the fundamental question is what the future will unfold for US-Egypt relations. Is Egypt completely lost? Or will “business as usual” continue?
Power Configuration in Egypt
Foreign policy cannot be analyzed without any reference to the domestic politics. This is especially true for Egypt. Following the revolution, a transition of power is taking place. Determining which actor(s) will gain prominence has a critical relevance for Egypt’s foreign policy trajectory. Therefore, one must look into the current power configuration in Egypt and understand the major actors in order to make a projection about its foreign policy.
In today’s Egypt, three major actors dominate the socio-political landscape. These actors are the military, the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) and the revolutionary youth (i.e. 6 April Movement), which was the main driving force behind the Tahrir Square protests. The post-Mubarak Egyptian politics will be shaped primarily by the interplay between these actors.
Young, educated (but mostly unemployed) people driven by high aspirations and access to global media have played a key role in the revolution. Although the revolution is over, their demands will continue to have a significant effect on the political agenda in the post-Mubarak era. For instance, Abdel Hamid of “Youth Revolution Coalition” warned the Military Council, which is currently the governing body of Egypt, that their reform demands must be met. He said that if they are not met, the youth won’t hesitate to take to the streets again. (5) This alone shows that decision makers will have to take into account the demands of the youth movement. However, the fundamental handicap of the youth movement as a political actor is their lack of ideological coherence. During the protests, the common cause around which they gathered at the Tahrir Square (the removal of Mubarak) enabled them to bury their differences. This enabled them to mobilize large segments of youth from various parts of the political spectrum. However, since Mubarak is ousted and the old regime is being purged, the question is whether their differences will begin surfacing. In short, the main question regarding the future of the revolutionary youth as a political actor is whether they will be able to continue acting as a united force.
MB, the most deep seated Islamic movement in the Muslim World, did not take the lead during the protests. They were slow to join the demonstrations and they preferred to keep low profile. However, this should not shadow the fact that it is the strongest socio-political force in Egypt. In the post-Mubarak era, they joined the youth movement in demanding reform in political, economic, social, education and media fields. Issam al-Aryan of MB, for instance, told the BBC that they “want a civil state, based on Islamic principles; a democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary.” (6) Since MB is preparing to enter electoral politics under the Freedom and Justice Party, their demands in domestic politics and foreign policy will shape Egypt. However, it should also be noted that, being an outlaw organization for decades, MB lacks administrative experience and thus making their success in political arena open to question.
Egyptian foreign policy will largely depend on military-civilian relations. Will military continue to be a neutral actor ensuring smooth transition to a genuinely civilian rule? Or is there a danger of military tutelage, in which military will rule behind the curtain? In short, one of the central questions for Egypt’s foreign policy is whether the military will relinquish its place in politics and allow civilians to take the lead.
One view is that the US-Egypt alliance will not be broken. As mentioned earlier, the Egyptian army has very close ties to the United States. America is the main weapons supplier and trainer of the Egyptian army. Egypt also depends on the US for the maintenance of its American-made military supplies and spare parts. Furthermore, about one third of Egyptian military spending is financed by the US. (9) It would thus be extremely costly to the Egyptian army to endanger US-Egypt military cooperation. Therefore, in the post-Mubarak era, it is reasonable to expect the army to be pro-status quo ante. Arguably, the Egyptian military’s involvement in politics will increase the likelihood of more pro-US foreign policy orientation. The signs are evident. For instance, following Mubarak’s deposal, the Military Council announced that they will honor all the international treaties signed by previous governments, including the 1979 peace treaty. This signifies that the US-Egypt relations won’t change radically in the foreseeable future.
Another view is that Egypt will follow more independent and assertive foreign policy similar to Turkey's. It is argued that under a democratically elected government, Egypt will have increased sovereignty in determining its national interests. In other words, Egyptian foreign policy will be shaped in Cairo, as opposed to Washington or Tel Aviv. Therefore, Egypt-US relations will be strained. One of the critical issues that will cause friction between the United States and post-Mubarak Egypt will be US support for Israel and the occupation. As mentioned above, during the Mubarak era, Egypt-Israel relations were rather friendly within the framework of 1979 peace treaty. Continued US aid to Egypt was the guarantor of these friendly relations. As a result, Mubarak was in the pro-Israeli camp regarding the Palestinian problem. However, the new government, regardless of its composition (whether it is dominated by the MB or not), is expected to be more sensitive to the Palestinian cause. As Gideon Levy of Israeli Haaretz newspaper argues, “Egyptian masses won’t play ally to Israel.” (10) In this sense, early in the revolution, MB called for submitting the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty to a referendum. Other actors join MB in denouncing Mubarak’s position towards Palestine and his alliance with Israel. (11) It is obvious that the new Egypt has no intention of maintaining the ‘business as usual’. Egypt’s recent decision to revisit the Egyptian-Israeli gas agreement, which has provided Israel with cheap natural gas, is another indication of policy change.
In addition to possible disengagement with Israel, Egypt’s rapprochement with other regional actors, especially Iran, can potentially create tension in US-Egypt relations. All Egyptian political parties, from the conservative Al-Wasat Party to leftist Tagammu Party, support strengthening relations with Arab neighbors and countries like Iran and Turkey. Egypt’s opening the Suez Canal to the Iranian military ships following the revolution (first in 32 years) indicates Egypt’s intention to improve its relations with Iran and pursue a more independent foreign policy. As Steven Cook, of Council on Foreign Relations, argues no matter who holds office, expecting the post-revolutionary Egypt to “carry on a partnership with Washington is like Vaclav Havel asking the Soviets for assistance after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989.” (12)
Ambiguity reigns in post-Mubarak Egypt, both in terms of domestic politics and foreign policy, leaving behind questions that can only be answered with certainty after some time. One of these questions for the future of Egypt-US relations is the Egyptian military’s role in politics. In the absence of institutions and political tradition, the military might want to fill the vacuum left by Mubarak, possibly hindering the transition to civilian rule. Furthermore, Western powers, who have always feared instability, can support the army’s political ambitions. This would thwart the possibility of meaningful change in Egypt. However, the writer of these lines believes that Egyptian masses won’t allow another anti-democratic regime to flourish. Their demands will be reflected in domestic and foreign policy. Consequently, Egypt-American relations will deteriorate as the new Egypt will likely deviate from Mubarak’s foreign policy. Egyptian revolution is a message to the US that its policies in the region (i.e. exerting control through puppet dictators) are no longer sustainable. If the United States wants to be a strong actor in the region and form alliances with the regional players, it needs to be prepared to take into account the demands and sentiments of the people in the region.