US-Egyptian relations post-Mubarak: Plus ca change…

President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for over a quarter of a century. Almost 80, and reportedly in poor health, Mubarak appears intent on quashing all but token political opposition and clearing the path for the ascension to the presidency of his son, Gamal, a 43-year-old former investment banker. It is no accident that the office of the vice president, the usual avenue to the presidency, remains vacant, and the military, where all of Egypt”s presidents have come from, is being kept at a distance. The press is also on notice to temper its criticism of the regime or suffer intimidation, jailing, and perhaps worse at the hands of the ever-vigilant state security apparatus.

While recently acceding to some of the demands of workers in what was one of the most widespread strikes seen in Egypt in modern memory, the regime was quick to shut down and ban the activities of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, which was instrumental in spearheading the labor protests. Mubarak has vowed to serve out his current term, which runs until 2011. During this period, there will be significant turnover in the political leadership of the United States as well as other key players in the Middle East.

The Mubarak regime”s key objective during this period of transition is to ensure stability and continuity. Regardless of who among the frontrunners in the current US presidential campaign ends up in the White House, it is highly likely that Washington will refrain from any further calls for regime change in the region, albeit quietly pressing for political and economic reform in Egypt. For the time being at least, the very public American campaign to champion democratic change in Egypt and in other key states in the Arab Middle East is over. Of course this does not mean that the US cannot nor will not continue to exercise its considerable economic leverage to press Cairo for greater political openness; it does mean that in light of strategic interests in the region as well as the immediate fallout from the democracy experiment, the US will mute further public scolding of the regime and look for much more gradual change. In this regard, it is striking how dramatic the change in rhetoric has been.

It was just June 2005 when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on the campus of the American University in Cairo, delivered a speech apparently marking a major shift in US policy toward the Arab world. Rice noted: “For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

More arresting than this overarching theme was the explicit call on the Egyptian government to provide its citizenry with freedom of choice, free elections, the right to public assembly and political participation. Given the highly stunted nature of Egypt”s political culture, it is not entirely clear why the US administration assumed that such reforms would witness the rise to power of moderate, modernizing elements in the Egyptian polity. What did happen was that in the first round of parliamentary elections held late in 2005, candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood won most of the races in which their names appeared on the ballot. Only the heavy-handed tactics and outright vote-rigging of the government ensured that these individuals would not achieve victory in subsequent rounds. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood made substantial gains in its share of parliamentary seats. This development, coupled with the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, appears to have substantially tempered the US zeal for democratization.

This was the context for Secretary Rice”s pronouncement in Cairo in early spring 2006 that in the parliamentary elections, President Mubarak had “sought the consent of the governed”. With Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit at her side, she went on to say, “We can”t judge Egypt…. We can”t tell Egypt what its course can be or should be….” And in what is likely to be the theme of US policy in the region for some time to come, the secretary added, “It [democratic change] takes time…. We understand that.”

Time and space is what the US will give Egypt in the years to come. There are a number of reasons for this backpedaling on democracy. The Egyptian government has played a significant role in supporting the US-lead campaign against al-Qaeda and other extremist elements in the region. It has even taken on the dirty work of forceful interrogation of suspects where US law would not permit such activity by an agency of the US government. Egypt has tightened the clamps on Hamas, to the point of imposing travel restrictions on the organization; it has increased border security to stem the flow of weapons from Sinai to Gaza; and it has declared its support for Fateh and its leader, the US-backed Mahmoud Abbas. Furthermore, the US can count on the Egyptians to act as a stabilizing force in Arab-Israel relations. Egypt is also lending Uncle Sam a helping hand in Iraq and Iran.

Most notably, the Mubarak regime is undertaking all these steps in the face of domestic sentiment that has been characterized as the most anti-American in the region. For now, at least, Washington”s strategic interests and the Mubarak government”s political interests are in close alignment. This being the case, there is little reason to believe that significant change in US-Egyptian relations is in the offing, regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential elections and as the mantle of power in Egypt is slowly passed from father to son.- Published 25/10/2007 ©

Dr. Hrach Gregorian is president of the Washington, DC-based Institute of World Affairs, a partner in the consulting firm Gettysburg Integrated Solutions, and associate professor in the Graduate Program in Conflict Analysis at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada.