Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Egypt's Transition to Democracy: Foreign Policy

For those of you who have followed this blog closely, what I’m about to say about Egypt’s future foreign policy probably won’t seem too surprising. After all, Egypt’s foreign policy is a topic that has come up several times over the last few months. What makes this blog post different from those prior posts is that here I perform a more systematic and comprehensive survey and analysis of Egyptian foreign policy.


To begin, let’s look at a very basic, general level of Egyptian foreign policy. In short, what does Egypt want? What are its goals? Egyptians of many different stripes—those from different religions and economic strata and with different political beliefs—widely agree that Egypt should attempt to reclaim its position of leadership within the region. They look back at the Mubarak era with disgust, in part because they believe he consistently prioritized the interests of Israel and the U.S. over the traditional interests of his own country. Really, in their view, Israel’s and Washington’s interests became Egypt’s interests. Put simply, according to this logic, Egypt was a follower and became a passive player in the region. It looked to the U.S. and Israel to set the tone on its own foreign policy. We can debate how much of this is actually grounded in truth or myth, but in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters most is what Egyptians believe to be true, for it is these beliefs that will shape Egyptian policymaking going forward. And in the future, we should expect Egypt to try to break free from its so-called era of passivity by acting more assertively and exercising more independence in its foreign policymaking. Significantly, this is something that the revolutionaries, various political candidates and parties, and religious groups have called for.

A more assertive foreign policy carries a host of implications. One important implication is that other states the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran and Israel, are going to have to make a place for Egypt at the policy table or risk confrontation. This is the same dilemma that will likely plague U.S.-China relations in the future. In both cases, either (1) the established leaders make concessions to the rising power, granting it more respect and a greater voice on the regional/world stage, and seek to integrate this country into the status quo; or (2) face the possibility that the rising power will become extremely dissatisfied with its position in the region/world, to the point that it might try to overturn the status quo. At this point, we’re a long way from Egypt embracing such aggressive tactics, but it is a potential pathway that it could head down if it does adopt very assertive policies over the long-term.


Next, let’s turn to Egypt’s relations with various important countries, starting with Israel. There’s already been quite a bit of speculation that Egypt’s transition to democracy will be bad for Israel’s interests. Truthfully, there is some evidence for this concern. Already, much to Israel’s dismay, Egyptian officials helped to seal a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, bringing Hamas in from the cold once again, and they are now working with both sides to implement it.

Moreover, Egyptian citizens have been very vocal in expressing their pro-Palestinian (and in some cases, anti-Israeli) views. Even during the revolution, the crowd in Tahrir was not shy about voicing their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been several protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, including one that triggered a violent crackdown by the Egyptian military. Last month, in a show of support for the Palestinians, who were commemorating Nakba Day, hundreds of Egyptians attempted to close in on the Rafah border crossing, but were stopped by the military. And to make matters worse, recent polling data from the Pew Research Center suggests that a majority of Egyptian citizens (54%) prefer to abrogate the peace deal with Israel.

Additionally, news about lower than market gas deals under Mubarak to Israel has surfaced, which has only infuriated Egyptians. Egyptian officials have promised to review these deals and possibly request Israel to pay a higher price.

And Egypt’s overtures to Iran, leading possibly to reestablishing ties with Iran, have unnerved Israel. Let’s face it: Under Mubarak, Egypt was one of the region’s stalwart countries that could be counted on to balance against any threatening politico-military moves emanating from Tehran. Without Egypt in an anti-Iran regional coalition, Iran’s freedom of movement, including its ability to cause havoc and mayhem directly or indirectly via its proxies, is greatly enhanced.

Lastly, as of last Saturday, to break Israel’s chokehold on Gaza, Egypt has opened the Rafah border. Reasonably, Egyptian officials argue that the move was made to alleviate humanitarian problems, but Israel sees the opening as a vehicle that allows unsavory people and things to get into Gaza.

As expected, Israeli officials are already finding all of these changes both frustrating and annoying at a minimum, and some, especially the foreign policy hawks, see these changes as worrisome and alarming.

But let’s take a deep breath for the moment. Most major players in Egyptian politics, even the Muslim Brotherhood, claim that they will respect the peace treaty. Most have been fairly careful about describing relations with Israel, emphasizing that Israel is not Egypt’s enemy. Indeed, most public statements simply highlight the need to break free from Israel’s shadow, to demonstrate some policy independence. Even the issue of the Rafah border crossing might not be quite so inflammatory to Israel or harmful to Egypt-Israel relations. For example, despite officially opening the border crossing, Gazans

I still believe the Egyptian Revolution could be a good thing for Israel. At Washington’s bidding, Hosni Mubarak supported the regional status quo, leading Egypt to avoid pushing Israel too hard to work with the Palestinians. In effect, this allowed the Israel-Palestinian conflict to get swept under the rug, and played into Israel’s hands. As we have already seen, a more open and free Egypt will no longer take this approach. Egypt will not avoid or ignore the longstanding conflict. Instead, it will make a greater effort to make progress on a deal, and this, in turn, might lead others in region to behave similarly, adding a sense of urgency and momentum to the stalled talks.

Saudi Arabia and Iran

What about the two other major countries in the region? As just mentioned, Egypt has broached the idea of normalizing relations with Iran. Egyptian officials have stated that they would like to treat Iran as just another country in the world, not necessarily as a friend or a foe. As a gesture of goodwill, in February, Egypt let Iranian warships pass through the Suez Canal, the first time that has happened since the Shah was overthrown. And Egyptian and Iranian officials have already held meetings in both Cairo and Tehran. Where all of this will lead is uncertain. But what is clear is that both sides value better inter-state ties.

Meantime, Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia are trending in the opposite direction. And there lots of moving parts involved here. First, to Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Hosni Mubarak not only presided over a friendly government, but he was their friend. Remember, Mubarak served for so long that was able to cultivate good political and personal ties to the King and his associates. The new democratic government in Egypt, whenever it takes office, with a whole new set of characters and intentions and goals, will be viewed by the King somewhat warily. The new democratic government just won’t have the longevity or the history with Saudi Arabia to make these inter-state relations as smooth and seamless as they have been in the past. And if the revolutionaries—the very group that toppled the Mubarak government—take power sometime soon, there could be some latent hostility between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It is also becoming evident that Saudi Arabia doesn’t like the new direction in Egypt’s foreign policy. Resetting relations with Iran, downgrading its ties with Israel, becoming more pro-active in the region—these aren’t things the Saudis want to see. Yes, even the part about Israel. Why? On a big picture level, they are nascent signs that Egypt might begin to formulate and implement foreign policies without consideration of Saudi interests and concerns. But on a micro level, on an issue by issue basis, they generate specific concerns: Will Saudi Arabia be left alone to counter-balance Iran’s bid for regional hegemony? Will Egypt try to challenge Saudi Arabia as the vanguard of Sunni dominance in the region?

And here’s one more challenge in Saudi-Egyptian relations: Egypt’s revolutionaries and political activists, as well as various Shia and Coptics, believe that Saudi Arabia is funding extremist political groups (specifically, the Salafis) so as to undermine the revolution. That is to say, in their eyes, Saudi Arabia is meddling in their country and in bed with, if not actually leading, the counter-revolutionaries. Not surprisingly, there have been protests at the Saudi embassy in Cairo. Arguably, the more troubling part of this is that the accusations give the Saudis another reason to dislike the revolutionaries, which only complicates further the ties between both countries.

The U.S.

The U.S. probably will lose some influence in Egypt as the country opens up its political processes. If the new government in Egypt reflects the political preferences of its citizens, as they do in free and fair democratic regimes, then it will undoubtedly take foreign policy positions that are increasingly independent of Washington’s demands and interests. But given the deep economic and military connections between Cairo and Washington, it’s awfully difficult to envision a sharp break in the relationship. And as another good sign, while Egyptian officials have stated their desire to pursue a foreign policy program independent of Washington, they have also been effusive in their praise of the U.S., proclaiming America to be a good friend of Egypt.

Alas, not everything is well in Egypt-U.S. relations. Certainly, there is some backlash because the U.S. is viewed as the longstanding puppeteer of Egyptian foreign policy, effectively making Cairo a servant of Washington for decades. And some Egyptians, especially the April 6 Movement, are upset with the U.S. because they believe Barack Obama’s support for the revolution was excessively slow. To them, the U.S. was too indecisive, wielding the full weight of its power far too late, which contributed the death and violence during the revolution. And it seemed that the U.S. preferred the autocratic, repressive Mubarak over their freedom. This argument fits with a narrative that’s been long popular in the region: the U.S. is hypocritical when it comes to its much-cherished values of freedom and liberty. Washington supports democracy in some countries, but declines to encourage or back it in other countries. Yes, the U.S. does have its reasons for maintaining inconsistencies in its foreign policies, but that’s beside the point. The main point here is that the perception of U.S. actions is the motor behind some negative attitudes and opinions on the Obama administration and American foreign policy.

The reaction of a number of revolutionaries and political activists to Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East uprisings fully displayed their distaste for the Obama administration, American government, and U.S. foreign policy. Many were uninterested in what Obama had to say, thought his words and efforts to help Egypt have come too late, and preferred he kept out of Egyptian politics. In short, they tuned Obama out. It is possible these thoughts and feelings are triggered mostly out of frustration and don’t mean much for future Egypt-U.S. relations. But still, the revolutionaries are Egypt’s next generation of political and economic leaders, and so what they think should be taken into account.

Going Forward
It is very interesting to see Egypt so willing and eager to flex its muscles in the region. Most countries engulfed in political transition tend to retreat from the world/regional stage and focus on internal affairs. I wonder if this assertiveness will hold for a prolonged period of time. Will Egypt’s efforts and energy on foreign policy match its foreign policy desires and plans over the next 5-7 years? Or will Egypt eventually turn inward?

Another key is to see where power is vested in Egyptian politics. It’s these power bases that will drive Egypt’s foreign policy. Surely, the military will be one major player, but who are the others? Ultimately, it depends on whether substantial political power is vested in parliament or the president. If it’s parliament, then foreign policy will be led by the military and various political parties, mostly likely the Muslim Brotherhood for now. On the other hand, if Egypt opts for a presidential system, then foreign policy will be driven by the military and the president, such as Mohamed El-Baradei or Amr Moussa, and his/her associates.

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