Decoding Egypt: Don't count on Obama's good intentions

Nael M. Shama
6 Min Read

In their first White House meeting, former US President Jimmy Carter told former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat: “I can see the possibility that 10 years from now our ties to you in the economic, military and political spheres will be just as strong as the ties we now have with Israel.

Carter’s prophecy has not materialized after 30 years of peace. Egypt’s stature and influence in Washington has not matched those enjoyed by Israel. Moreover, Egyptian-American diplomatic relations have from the 1970s turned trilateral.

Egypt initially sought a self-supporting, bilateral connection with the United States. Instead, following the Camp David Accords and up until now, Egypt has found itself enmeshed in an asymmetrical trilateral relationship with the United States and Israel. This means that Egypt is partially judged by Washington’s policymakers on how it conducted itself toward Israel.

Whenever Egyptian-Israeli political relations deteriorated for any reason, US-Egyptian ties were automatically strained

For example, Egyptian-US relations turn sour whenever Egypt freezes the process of normalizing relations with Israel, in response to the latter’s unforthcoming attitude towards the peace process with the Palestinians.

In return, the credibility of the United States in Egypt, and Arab states in general, is measured through the US behavior towards Middle Eastern issues, particularly the Palestinian question.

The forthcoming visits of Mubarak to Washington (the first in five years) and Obama to Cairo are a vivid sign that both parties are eager to fix the rift that was caused by the imprudent policies of the previous US administration. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, backing hawkish Israeli attitudes and exerting pressure on Arab regimes to reform their political systems, George W. Bush gained the enmity of Arab peoples and regimes alike.

To restore credibility and curb the damage caused by the unilateral and aggressive policies of Bush, the recently elected American administration has made a number of goodwill gestures to the Arab world.

Obama’s choice of George Mitchell as the US Special Envoy for the Middle East was received positively in the Arab World. Mitchell oversaw the writing of a 2001 report that called for a halt to the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, a senior US official said Israel should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gotemoeller stated that “universal adherence to the NPT, including by Israel, is “a fundamental objective of the United States. Since President Nixon, US administrations declined to publicly acknowledge Israel’s possession of nuclear warheads.

Despite their symbolic significance, these gestures are certainly not enough to usher a new era in American relations with Egypt and the Arab world.

The Arab world is expecting concrete steps on the part of the world’s only superpower to address the region’s real problems, particularly the six-decade Arab-Israeli conflict.

Thus far, the change in US foreign policy has been in style, not substance.

Instead of the confrontational and militarized approach of Bush, Obama has opted for a softer approach to foreign policy, which is based on consultation and reconciliation. But the overriding strategic objectives of the United States have not changed much.

Therefore, counting too much on the American President’s good intentions is bound to backfire. His positive outlook towards the Muslim world is not the most important determinant of US foreign policy. American interests will continue to constitute the main thrust of American policies. These interests are defined by a number of US institutions and groups, over which Obama has little control.

This means that the formidable, strategic US-Israel connection will endure, despite the differences between the visions of Obama and Netanyahu. And the Israeli factor will continue to poison Egyptian-American relations. Also, the vulnerability of the Arab nation, the division of Arab states into two opposing camps, and the division of the Palestinians all continue to inhibit Arab states from influencing US foreign policy.

In the absence of such an influence, wide segments within the Arab public have resorted to wishful thinking. They have preferred to wait for a miracle, a God-sent gift that would solve their chronic problems overnight, and in Obama they have finally found that rescuer.

This myopic vision should be discarded, for the real savior must come from within our ranks. A united Arab stance and Palestinian reconciliation will help push peace talks forward. Meanwhile, Egypt should consider how to free its ties with Washington from the corrupting influence of the Israeli factor.

Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He could be reached at [email protected]

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