Once Again: What do Egyptians want from America?

Farid Zahran
10 Min Read
Farid Zahran
Farid Zahran
Farid Zahran

In the last article we discussed Egypt’s elite, and in particular those supporters of the nationalist, or “deep” state, who are largely in line with American strategic directives regarding the administration of the region and the world at large. None of their adopted polices clash with American interests, either in Egypt or in the region as a whole.

Despite this, they still fear Washington’s intentions in Egypt and the broader region for two reasons: the first having to do with Egypt’s status as a country that is strategically less important to the US than Israel, and even at times less than other countries in the region. This translates into the US consulting with Egypt less on strategic matters than they do with Israel, in addition to providing more support to the latter than the former. Despite this, the country’s elite, and in particular supporters of the nationalist state, are deeply convinced that Egypt is still the most important country in the region. Furthermore despite this, these elites have repeatedly been shocked by actions taken by the United States regarding Egypt, two times in particular.

The first being Anwar El-Sadat’s decision to shift Egypt’s international allegiance during the Cold War from Moscow to Washington, a move which did not result in increased levels of American support. The best example of this is when El-Sadat, riding the wave of optimism that followed the election of Richard Nixon in 1975, took to implementing an economic reform program in 1977 according to the wishes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States. These reforms led to overall increases in the price of goods, in addition to a series of other negative economic effects, which helped contribute to the outbreak of a massive popular revolt which shook the country to its core. It would have been appropriate for the US during this critical period to provide Egypt with the type of economic aid needed to successfully implement such a program. Most analysts will agree, however, that the US largely abandoned Egypt during this critical time, forcing El-Sadat to make additional concessions to the former, such as his historic trip to Jerusalem, which he hoped would eventually lead Washington to view Egypt in a more positive light. However even then this did not happen, and in the eyes of Egypt’s elite, the United States still viewed Israel as the most important country in the Middle East, leaving the former with only the crumbs and scraps of what was left of available aid in the region.

The second instance of shock took place after Egypt joined the American coalition to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the first Gulf War, which helped mobilise the necessary popular, Arab and Islamic support needed for Washington to succeed. Mobilisation of such support naturally meant that Washington would have to ensure that Israel not join the war effort, considering that the latter’s opposition to any particular country or political force (in this case Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), would naturally make that force more popular in the eyes of those others in the region, considering Israel’s status as a country that is viewed as largely alien and lacking of legitimacy by its neighbours. That being said, all those within the coalition agreed that Israel’s entry into the war would help rally popular support for Saddam, and therefore hurt American interests. These interests did not only include the imposition of US hegemony within the region, but also to ensure the creation of a new, uni-polar world order after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Not long however after El-Sadat gave into all of the United State’s demands, including the establishment of peace with Israel, it became clear that Washington not only still viewed Israel as its primary partner in the region, but also the country best capable of overseeing and administering its affairs on its behalf. This shocked Egypt’s elite, which to this day still views the United State’s knowledge and familiarity of the region as distorted and confused, and needing to rely more on the expertise of the former, or at the very least, allow the former to administer the internal affairs of its country. Perhaps for these reasons Egypt’s supporters of a nationalist state have become obsessed with American policies and stances towards the region, which are largely seen as ill-informed and naïve.

This, for example, includes the United State’s call for increased democracy within Egypt without taking into account the sovereignty or special needs of the country itself. Such disputes extended through the last decade up until before 25 January 2011, having to do with the state of the economy and its willingness to implement policies proposed by the IMF, which the Egyptian elite viewed as impossible as such policies would lead to the spread of poverty throughout the country. However the most prominent difference between the two most likely had to do with the lack of consensus reached on the settling of the Palestinian issue, and its relationship to the need to create a “Sunni belt” in the region for the purpose of confronting Iran.

Other issues included the United State’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which stirred up a great deal of anger and ire amongst the Egyptian elite, particularly after 25 January 2011, after it became clear that the former’s policy was to see the Brotherhood rise to power, as opposed to that of the country’s democratic forces, or to continue to preserve the power of the country’s old elite. It well is known also that the Brotherhood reached agreements with the United States regarding three particular points which had previously served as additional matters of dispute between Washington and the country’s nationalist elite.

The Brotherhood exerted serious efforts to abide by these agreements which resulted in the production of very narrow, short term policies, such as the need to respect Israel’s peace treaty (cease fire agreement) with Hamas, agreeing to engage with the IMF regarding acceptance of loans based on specific conditions, and supporting the Syrian opposition to the fullest extent possible. However the Brotherhood proved unable to successfully implement these policies, which were opposed by a majority of the country’s other political factions. This has left Washington once again with having to deal with the country’s old elite, which has fused to a certain extent with Egypt’s democratic forces, bringing the situation back to where it stood previously: A wide gap existing between the two regarding Egypt’s rightful place in the region, the need for Washington to allow the elite to run the internal affairs of the country independently, and the need to settle disputes regarding outstanding issues such as the state of Palestinians, Iran and the IMF, all the while doing so while taking into account the point of view of the elites themselves.

The emergence of the country’s democratic forces after 30 June as a relevant part of the country’s political process, may help to lighten the intensity of such disputes regarding the implementation of democracy itself, however may also carry with it the potential to sharpen disputes regarding other issues. Egypt’s democratic forces, for example, will not cooperate in implementing the reform packages called for by the IMF, which will increase poverty throughout the country, as they will also not agree to any deal which places the Gaza strip under Egyptian sovereignty. Lastly, they cannot be expected to adopt any policies that are hostile to Iran or Syria, despite their rejection of the latter two’s greed and ambitions in the region. However I feel that such differences can be worked out if Washington allows for Egypt’s elite to administer the country’s internal affairs independently, and allow Egypt to occupy its rightful place in the region.

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Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party