Egypt’s Newfound Foreign Policy Assertiveness
Various Israeli and American officials and academics who have expressed concerns over Egypt's new foreign policy are misreading Cairo's intentions as well as the opportunities that a more confident and independent Egypt presents. The overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak was driven by Egypt's domestic troubles-in particular its lack of political freedom and economic opportunity which must be systematically addressed albeit for years to come. However, to meet the demands of its people, the new, more accountable Egyptian government will be driven to provide the kind of much-needed – and for many years sorely lacking – Arab leadership in the Middle East. Contrary to those who argue that the Mubarak government served to safeguard Western interests, it sat idle as the influence of non-Arab states like Turkey and Iran, and Islamist actors like Hamas and Hezbollah rose in a region barren of independence and opportunity. In this respect, a more assertive Egypt providing Arab leadership could emerge as a critical actor in support of regional security, stability and peace.
Rather than carry the mantle of Arab leadership as the leader of the most populated Arab state, President Hosni Mubarak's chief aim was the maintenance of his own regime. His ties with the United States and Israel – and the resulting American aid – were his chief tools in this regard. His clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood also sought to achieve this same, single-minded goal. Meanwhile, Egypt's ties with key regional Arab nations like Syria, and non-Arab actors like Turkey and Iran, were frayed or seemingly non-existent. These policies and the breakdown in Egypt's foreign relations served to limit Egyptian influence in the region, even as it seemed to firmly entrench Mubarak's presidency. The result: while non-Arab actors like Turkey and Iran have wielded significant regional influence, Egypt virtually had none. While domestic considerations served to ignite Egypt's revolution, the lack of leadership only reinforced the image that President Mubarak's policies were contributing to the decline of the Arab world, rather than to its empowerment. The response by the Egyptian military following the explosion of protests throughout the country – to support and protect, rather than disperse the revolutionaries – suggested a tacit acknowledgment of this fact and provided it with an opportunity to establish a new, clean slate upon which to build. With Hosni Mubarak already at the advanced age of 82 and with the possible succession to his son Gamal highly unpopular – along with the continuation of failed domestic and foreign policies – the military elite recognized that it was time to seize the opportunity to create a much-needed change.
As the current Egyptian government stewards the nation in its transition to a more open and free democratic system, it has already begun to make the kind of domestic and foreign policy reforms that will be needed to re-assert Egyptian leadership. To be sure, it is understandable that the United States and Israel are troubled by data like the recent Pew Research poll indicating that 54 percent of Egyptians would like to see the Israel-Egypt peace treaty annulled, and 79 percent have a negative view of the United States. However, turning these figures around will require working with a new Egyptian government that is responsive to its people, not shunning or fearing them. Furthermore, privately, and publicly, officials in the new Egyptian government and candidates for the Egyptian presidency have indicated their desire to demonstrate Egyptian leadership and independence, yet still abide by its treaty with Israel and maintain strategic ties with the United States to safeguard its own national security and economic interests. Abrogating the peace treaty with Israel would have tremendous political, economic and military repercussions that would kill any prospect of making progress in these areas and would quickly end Egypt's aspiration to resume its regional leadership role. In fact, in a recent interview with the Washington Post, the new Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby stated repeatedly that Egypt "made it very clear from the first day (of the new government) that we want to open a new page with all the countries in the world." Regarding Egypt-U.S. ties the foreign minister said he expected them to be "stronger than ever" and in reference to Egypt-Israel ties he noted that "Egypt is going to comply with every agreement and abide by every treaty it has entered into." Because of these assurances the US and its European partners have made significant additional economic aid package including debt relief to help Egypt to jump start its economic malise.
Even so, Western fears of the new Egyptian foreign policy direction are centered on three key concerns: the new government's outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly play a key role in Egypt's future. Suppressing it proved unsuccessful under the Mubarak regime, and continuing to do so would be antithetical to the spirit of freedom and democracy, which drove the revolution. It is important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood did not lead the revolution. This was by-and-large a secular revolution seeking to expand the same kind of freedoms and opportunities that are enjoyed by the West. Furthermore, the Egyptian revolution was successful not by utilizing the violent tactics of Islamic extremists but by peaceful protests in the streets. The new Egyptian government – and Egyptian military in particular – will not now jeopardize the hope for a better future that has filled its citizens by enabling the Brotherhood to co-opt the revolution. Rather, creating progress to greater regional leadership and expanded domestic opportunity will require the new government to co-opt the Brotherhood, instead of suppressing and marginalizing it. If the new Egyptian government is to be responsive to its people, the new government must establish clear red-lines with the Brotherhood, asserting that its participation in national politics is welcome, but as a political party dedicated to abiding by the political process, not as sect of Islamist revolutionaries. Moreover, for the Egyptian government to undertake significant social and economic development programs it will have to include the Brotherhood which enjoys popularity in these two spheres. A greater political role for the Muslim Brotherhood will translate into greater responsibility for the group, and with responsibility comes accountability, moderation, and compromise. As such, the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood will be an important component in establishing a relationship between religion and state that is uniquely suited to Egyptian society; still under the watchful eyes of the military.
The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement is the first indication of the prospect for a stronger, more influential post-Mubarak Egypt. A conflict that Mubarak's government had been mediating for years was concluded by the new Egyptian government in less than three months. On Mubarak's watch, the absence of influential Arab leadership indirectly enabled the violent conflicts to fester between Israel and Hezbollah, and Israel and Hamas. Already, under the nascent Hamas-Fatah unity deal, Hamas has indicated its willingness to allow Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel regarding a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and pledged, as a part of the reconciliation agreement not to use violence. The Mubarak government's strained relationship with Hamas, the Brotherhood's offshoot in Gaza, effectively handcuffed Egypt from playing a meaningful role in moderating Hamas' position or mediating Israeli-Palestinian disputes. While Egypt's overtures to Hamas and its opening of the Egypt-Gaza border may be troubling to Israel, Egypt's interests remain to maintain stability and security along its borders, especially with Israel, while distancing Hamas from Syria and Iran. Indeed, to protect its own national security interests, Egypt would be foolish to allow the smuggling of weapons to Hamas through the newly open crossing. A new Israeli-Hamas conflagration would severely undercut Egypt's new policy initiative. Moreover, the opening of the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt would ease the international pressure on Israel over its blockade of Gaza while increasing Egypt's control over the strip. Indeed, an Egypt that is better positioned to work with Hamas is one that is more likely to succeed in moderating Hamas' positions, in halting rocket-fire on Israel, and even in securing the release of captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
The potential for Egypt to serve as a diplomatic conduit is also promising with regard to its renewed ties with Iran. As Omar Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League and a leading candidate for Egypt's presidency told the Washington Post recently, "Iran is not the natural enemy of Arabs, and it shouldn't be. We have a lot to gain by peaceful relations – or less tense relations – with Iran." Egypt does not need to be Iran's enemy, but it is a natural competitor. If Egypt is to provide leadership in the Arab world, its ability to maintain dialogue and influence with nations across the region, from Israel to Iran, will be critical. Just as Egypt can benefit from its burgeoning ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, talks between Egypt and Iran offer an opportunity to better gauge Iran's nuclear intentions and might even place Egypt in a better position than Turkey to mediate Tehran's disputes with the West. While working to moderate Iran's behavior for the betterment of the entire region, no country is better positioned than Egypt to also warn Iran of the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to threaten Israel existentially.
Finally, what further concerns the United States and Israel is how these new initiatives will play out and what might be the next step that Egypt will take. The answer to these questions is that a stronger, more assertive and more democratic Egypt that seeks to advance its own interests could also further the interests it continues to share with the United States and Israel: security and peace in the broader Middle East. Certainly, the new Egypt will need time to develop its new regional posture. However, rather than view Egypt's newfound assertiveness and independence as a threat, officials in Washington and Jerusalem should view the new Egyptian leadership as providing an important opportunity to improve relations with the Arab world on the path toward achieving these long elusive goals.
*A version of this article was published on May 20, 2011 in the Jerusalem Post Magazine and online at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=221368