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January 15, 2010

A Defensive Egypt and US Foreign Policy
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

First off, I wanted to thank the folks here at Democracy Arsenal for inviting me to join the blog. As for a very brief bio, I am a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York, and I work on U.S. foreign policy in the greater Middle East. I am also a lawyer, so every once in a while I might stray on to international legal topics as well.

For my inaugural post, I wanted to draw attention to yesterday’s article by Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press discussing the recent political moves of Mohamed el-Barade’i, the Egyptian former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (with the added bonus that I am quoted in the piece). el-Barade’i has pointedly challenged the Mubarak regime and flirted with the notion of competing to be Egypt’s president. It is hard to imagine a scenario whereby el-Barade’i could become Egypt’s next president, but his provocative comments and his interest in fundamental reform of Egypt’s political superstructure are an important development − particularly in light of the reactions his recent comments have provoked.

The desperation among many Egyptians for any hint of an opportunity for a political breakthrough is indicative of the general malaise that has become Egypt’s status quo and is the reason for much of the hype surrounding el-Barade’i. Part of this is biography in that el-Barade’i is untainted by political corruption and is a compelling and competent figure of international stature. With all other avenues for political reform blocked, people understandably are drawn to the proverbial silver bullet.

But the harsh, defensive reaction of regime supporters has been equally instructive, with the government-controlled press attacking him and attempting to discredit him in the eyes of Egyptians. Issandr Amrani notes that “pro-regime newspapers immediately went on an offensive of insinuations (ElBaradei was accused of being a tool of both Washington and Tehran, out of touch, and secretly Swedish).”

Here in the United States, the issue of succession in Egypt is often understood through the lens of regime stability, which is seen as the paramount concern and the avenue by which to guard U.S. regional interests. This has been a hallmark of U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly after the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah. But not enough thought is given to how the current defensiveness of the Egyptian regime negatively impacts U.S. interests. We should be as concerned with the here and now and not simply with the potentially destabilizing effects of a transition.

The regime’s increasing defensiveness, driven by the looming question of succession and the regime’s attempts to ensure a hereditary hand-off to Gamal Mubarak, has distorted the Egyptian regime’s worldview and narrowed its perception of its own interests. In addition to supporting U.S. regional diplomacy, our allies such as Egypt should provide us with a reality check based on their more textured and nuanced understanding of their own surroundings and current political dynamics. A true and useful alliance should incorporate channels for open and honest communication. 

Aside from Egypt’s diminished regional status, the Mubarak regime’s current defensive posture, driven largely by its own narrow domestic considerations, makes it a particularly poor regional reference point. Nowhere is this clearer than with respect to the issue of Gaza and its continued isolation. Setting aside the broader issue of U.S. policy with respect to Hamas, the current efforts to undermine their control over Gaza have created a humanitarian crisis that has undermined the President’s message of reconciliation with the Muslim world delivered in Cairo last June. The lack of any U.S. efforts to alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s people has helped to frustrate many of the hopes that followed the Cairo speech. It has also created a significant barrier to the administration’s efforts to revive credible Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This policy has been carried out with unstinting Egyptian support. But the Egyptian regime is primarily motivated with undermining its own domestic opposition in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and is concerned with the prospects of contagion from next door. This convergence of the Egyptian regime’s narrow interests with our current attempts to isolate and weaken Hamas has blinded us to many of the serious downsides of our current policy. While we have Arab support for our policy to isolate Gaza in the form of Egypt’s closure of its border crossings, we should be careful to understand the motivations behind Cairo’s decision-making and not draw overly broad conclusions about the wisdom, effectiveness, or sustainability of this policy due to Egypt’s involvement − the narrow, short-term desires of the Egyptian regime are not a good guide in determining our regional priorities. 

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