The Cairo Conundrum
Egypt is the linchpin to America’s Middle East policy—a policy that must make interests reinforce ideals, rather than conflict with them.
It is no accident that Egypt, along with Jordan–the second-largest per-capita recipient of U.S. aid in the world–are the only two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel. They are seen as particularly vital to U.S. regional interests and, with Saudi Arabia, form a sort of “moderate” Sunni axis. This is the quid pro quo–often implicit but sometimes explicit–that has for decades animated America’s interaction with the region.
Succession and Stability
In August 2009, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Washington, D.C., for the first time in six years. For much of Bush’s presidency, an icy relationship had kept the Egyptian leader at bay. With Congress out of session and much of the city vacated, Mubarak’s visit had, in journalist Laura Rozen’s words, a “distinct under-the-radar quality.” At a joint press conference, Obama ran through a long list of topics the two discussed; notably missing were human rights and democracy. Perhaps this was just a matter of pragmatism, of deferring to reality rather than denying it. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, “You deal with the Egypt you have, not the one you want.” Which one, then, do we have?
Broadly speaking, Egypt can usually be counted on to support U.S. interests in the region, from ensuring passage through the Suez Canal to cooperation on counterterrorism. Considering the more than $60 billion in aid given to Egypt over the last 30 years–some of a more cynical bent may prefer “bribe”–this is perhaps the least that could be expected.
But the country’s internal situation inspires little confidence that such cooperation can be expanded. Egypt has that dispiriting look of a developing country in decline. Its infrastructure is, literally, crumbling, overwhelmed by one of the region’s fastest-growing populations. By my count, Cairo has at best five working traffic lights, and even those require–in the absence of respect for the government and its laws–a small army of policemen to enforce signal changes. On the other hand, the World Bank has applauded the current Egyptian government of autocrat-technocrats for its economic reforms, including privatization and deregulation initiatives. The result is impressive annual GDP growth of around 7 percent that has created a class of government-dependent multi-millionaires but failed to address disturbingly high unemployment and economic inequality. A still-bloated public sector subsidizes the country’s shrunken middle class, effectively precluding it from the role of democratic vanguard it played in Latin America and Europe.
But America’s interest in Egypt was never really about the success of economic reform. It was, and is, about its role of status-quo power in a region where the United States has consistently supported a status quo of uninterrupted oil production, a secure Israel, and a “stable” balance of power. Increasingly, however, Egypt’s ability to play its part has come into question. At 81, Mubarak is in declining health, and the long-speculated succession will continue to dominate the country’s politics. Mubarak’s son Gamal, a former investment banker and neo-liberal par excellence, will very likely follow his father, if possible through an orchestrated show of constitutionalism. In the past year alone, the younger Mubarak, head of the ruling National Democratic Party’s Policy Committee, has made two trips to Washington, despite having no formal government position.
Gamal is unpopular and, in a country that effectively remains a military dictatorship, lacks a military background. His ascension would likely provoke opposition in various quarters, not least among Egypt’s notoriously fractious but sometimes energetic opposition of leftists, liberals, and Islamists. The military may decide to get involved. Anticipating such difficulties, the last several years have been marked by an unprecedented crackdown on political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the nonviolent Islamist proto-party that, with 88 seats, forms the largest opposition bloc in parliament. Since 2006, the regime has worked to erase the Brotherhood from the political map, in what many consider the worst period of anti-Islamist repression since the so-called mihna, or inquisition, of the 1950s and ‘60s. Not content to rely solely on brute force, the Mubarak government–in what Amnesty International called “the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years”–passed 34 constitutional amendments that nullify political freedoms and grant the regime even more extensive powers to detain opponents. An amended Article 5, for example, bans any “political activity” on the basis of religion, allowing the government to arrest any Islamist at any time without due cause. In effect, the regime’s right to repress has been enshrined in the constitution.
Stability, legitimacy, and the question of democracy in Egypt are all intertwined. The less legitimate the current regime and its recent actions are perceived to be, the less likely the impending transition will be stable or even peaceful. This is why Egypt’s internal affairs–in particular the regime’s disregard for even the pretense of building any post-Mubarak consensus–are so important.
To be sure, there is much debate on the extent to which the Mubarak regime actually helps America on key regional concerns, such as countering Iranian influence or supporting the peace process. On the latter, its contributions are best described as modest. Egypt has done a better job of patrolling its border and stopping arms smuggling into Gaza, and it has mediated between both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Fatah and Hamas. But it has less to show in tangible results. That said, there is little doubt that Egypt plays an important role, even if more a function of perception than reality. Instability in Egypt–turning it inward–will imperil any increased role it still has the potential to play.
The Illusion of Peace
Egypt’s role, whether real or simply hoped for, is inextricably tied to Israel and the Palestinian territories, arguably the current administration’s overriding focus in the region. Obama’s appreciation of the centrality of the conflict suggests an understanding of Arab anger few of his predecessors possessed. He appears to have an intuitive grasp of the place of grievance in public life–consider his nuanced Philadelphia speech on race–and that grasp has been extended to the Muslim world.
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