The Egyptian mess

Whatever Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is carrying in her attache case as she visits Egypt this weekend, it won’t be nearly enough to begin to fix what ails the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

Beneath the “isn’t democracy wonderful (and messy)” platitudes emanating from the State Department, and the diplomatic smiles and niceties surrounding Clinton’s visit, three fundamental contradictions are likely to keep America’s ties with Egypt in the doldrums for some time to come. We should face up to them sooner rather than later.

First, the democracy problem. The last 18 months witnessed not so much a revolution in Egypt as a regime reconstitution married to a historic opening up of the political system. The good news is that Egypt has competitive politics; the bad news is that the two forces that are competing — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — are inherently undemocratic, perhaps even anti-democratic, both in structure and philosophy.

Sometimes in competition, sometimes in confrontation, these forces are determined to protect their own interests at the expense of a truly national vision for the country. The casualties in this long game (neither can nor will defeat the other) are Egypt’s institutions — the parliament, constitutional assembly and courts — now increasingly delegitimized, and the more secular liberal parties that are too dysfunctional and poorly organized to really compete.

Enter the United States, now caught up in the middle of a game it has a hard time playing. Clinton will say all the right things. However, she’s trapped between Islamists whose values she can’t possibly share (let’s start with gender equality) and generals who she believes are undermining hope of democratic change but whom she needs to maintain U.S. security interests and the peace treaty with Israel.

Yes, she can give rousing speeches in defense of democracy, but the Obama administration lacks real leverage, or at least leverage it’s prepared to use. The $1.5 billion in U.S. militaryaid will continue to flow (for now) because without it we’ll have no influence; the Israelis want it to continue; and after providing so much aid to authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, how can we now cut assistance as Egypt tries to democratize?

And are we not going to do what we can to support Egypt economically — debt forgiveness, etc. — even if the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders don’t quickly become Jacksonian democrats? Let’s admit it. We’re stuck.

Second, the Israel problem. Let’s be clear about one thing. The intimacy of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship began as a direct result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Without Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin there would have been no military and economic assistance to Egypt for all those years since the 1978 Camp David accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty. If the Egypt-Israel relationship goes south (and it will), how do we expect to keep the U.S.-Egypt relationship on the rails?

The military will abide by the letter of the treaty, but the spirit — comatose for some time now — may go into complete arrest as Egyptian public opinion plays a greater role in setting the tone on Israel. (See settlements, Benjamin Netanyahu). It was hard enough getting Mubarak to visit Israel or receive Israeli prime ministers. Let’s see how newly elected President Mohamed Morsi does. The bet is that as the anti-Israel rhetoric gets hotter, so will U.S. congressional reaction, thereby constraining what we’re able to do in assisting Egypt.

Third, the Egyptians-hate-our-policy problem. Under Mubarak we could rationalize the fact that most Egyptians disliked America’s Middle East policy. Now that’s not going to be so easy. In the latest Pew polls, 76% of Egyptians had an unfavorable view of the Obama administration; poll numbers from Shibley Telhami found only 25% favored Obama’s reelection and 85% had an unfavorable view of the U.S. in general.

Not only will the Egyptian rhetoric probably get more strident, there may be more drama, such as this spring’s threat to try several American workers — among them the son of a U.S. Cabinetofficial (a case that isn’t yet closed) — or Morsi’s vow to seek the release from a U.S. prison of the “blind sheik” who was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. U.S. policy on Israel, Hamas, counter-terrorism and Predator drone strikes isn’t likely to change. But the support among our politicians and the public for aiding countries that criticize America is going to contract.

U.S.-Egypt relations are in for some tough times. Forget solutions or overcoming these challenges. They’re far too entrenched and Egypt’s far too much a mess for that. More likely we’ll have to do some pretty fancy shuffling and two-stepping just to manage the relationship. So, Madam Secretary, put on those dancing shoes and get ready to hit the floor.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.

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