Whoever Wins Egypt’s Presidency, the Party is Over for Washington

Whether Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi or former Mubarak official Ahmed Shafiq wins the election, the U.S. will face tougher challenges in Cairo.

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Over the weekend when it became clear that Egypt’s presidential
elections would go to a run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed
Morsi and former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, some observers were
quick to claim that the latter’s victory would bring a collective sigh
of relief inside the Beltway. This was obviously pure speculation,
which means something on Twitter, but it raises an interesting question:
Who is better for the United States, Morsi or Shafiq?

Let me caveat by
stipulating that the United States is essentially a sideshow here; the
most important issue is who will be better for Egypt. That is something
for Egyptians to decide on June 16th and 17th.
Nevertheless, given Washington’s long-term ties to Cairo, American
officials and Egypt observers are trying to understand what is in store
for U.S.-Egypt relations under either President Morsi or President
Shafiq.  Readers of this blog can pretty much guess that I don’t think
either candidate is “good” for the United States, which means Washington
will have to adjust to new Egyptian realities. No one is Hosni Mubarak
and while the notion that he did everything the United States wanted is
not entirely accurate, he did “understand that Egypt’s interests lie
with the United States,” according to an official who served in George
W. Bush’s administration.

The Egyptian military has not been terribly happy with its American friends.

Morsi is the more complicated and interesting candidate, but against
the backdrop of U.S.-Egypt relations, it’s pretty clear that the Muslim
Brotherhood’s candidate is not likely to embrace the strategic
relationship.  The Brothers have run against the Washington-Cairo link
since bilateral ties grew stronger in the mid-1970s.  They used the
issue to pillory Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak and delegitimize a regime
whose legitimacy rested in large part on nationalism. It is important
to remember that the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood lie in Hassan al
Banna’s dismay over foreign — i.e. Western — penetration of Egypt, which
damaged traditional values. I am not saying that the Brotherhood hasn’t
changed since the early 1920s when al Banna first arrived in Cairo, but
mistrust of the khawaga is part of the organization’s DNA. To
be sure, the Brotherhood espoused a pan-Islamic message at times, but
at a basic level, the Brothers are good nationalists.

Fast forward to
the January 25th uprising, which was about dignity and
national empowerment, and you understand further why a President Morsi
is unlikely to make his first international visit to the United States. 
The Brothers were a bit late to the uprising and Morsi needs to
court — as he seems to be doing — the revolutionaries, liberals, and Lefties
who made the uprising possible.  Those folks are not known to be
enamored with the United States and U.S. policy in the Middle East. 
Indeed, add U.S. support for Israel and the fact that the Brotherhood’s
previous electoral platforms indicated that U.S.-Egypt ties under
Mubarak essentially warped Egyptian foreign policy, and the writing — in
day-glo colors — is on the wall about the bilateral relationship under
Morsi. Some have suggested that Egypt is in such dire straits
economically that it will force Morsi to accommodate himself to
Washington because Cairo will need U.S. aid and goodwill in order to
secure international assistance.  That is probably true and you already
see the Brothers trying out logically contorted arguments about the
United States and assistance, but given what is at best a deep
ambivalence or at worst the profound hostility of Egyptians toward
Washington, the relationship is going to change.

Ahmed Shafiq, in contrast, seems to have a U.S.-friendly background: 
He was an air force commander, minister of civil aviation, and served,
if ever so briefly, as Mubarak’s last prime minister.  Shafiq was a
fully engaged senior official of the old order, which benefited
militarily, diplomatically, and financially from U.S. patronage.  I
wouldn’t make much of Shafiq’s military background when it comes to the
United States. He wasn’t trained in the United States, though he did a
fellowship stint on combined arms training in France. By all measures,
he was a proficient airman, serving in all of Egypt’s wars since his
commission and seems to be well-respected among the senior officers — he’s
been their presidential candidate — but here is the rub, the Egyptian
military has not been terribly happy with its American friends. 

The
American military aid to Egypt has become an annual political fight with
Congress over conditionality that doesn’t sit well with the officers in
addition to the fact that $1.3 billion, which needs to be spent in the
United States, doesn’t buy all that much these days.  Moreover, the
remnants of the old regime, of which Shafiq is now the standard bearer,
were angry over the way the United States handled the uprising.  Hosni
Mubarak carried Washington’s water in the Middle East for almost 30
years to his political detriment and from where supporters of the old
regime sit, the Obama administration unceremoniously dumped a longtime
ally. I am told that the felool are over it.  I am not
convinced, but even if they are, it is hard to believe that President
Shafiq will embrace the United States given the way Mubarak was
treated.  Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the Obama administration
pursued the wrong policy when it came to the conclusion that the
Egyptian president had to go, but that Shafiq and his supporters likely
have a different view of that episode and it could affect bilateral
relations.

Finally, precisely because Shafiq represents the old order, he needs
to demonstrate some space between himself and the policies of the past. Even if he wants to roll back the changes that have occurred since the
uprising and has held himself out as the restorer of order, the uprising
has fundamentally altered Egypt’s political arena in important ways. 
For all their problems and political limitations, revolutionary groups,
liberals, leftists, Salafists and a variety of others have discovered
ways to make their voices heard.  It’s clear that Shafiq understands
this as he has softened his position on the uprising considerably since
it became evident that he would be in the run-off. Like Morsi, Shafiq
needs to appeal to voters beyond his natural constituency. The twin
exigencies of broadening his base and demonstrating that he isn’t Hosni
Mubarak in a different Rolex and a cardigan sweater means that, among
other things, Shafiq may well run and potentially govern against the
United States. The U.S.-Egypt relationship is too big and juicy a
political target for Shafiq to ignore because it serves both of his
political interests at once.

So you see, no dancing in the streets outside the State Department,
the champagne will not flow at the Pentagon, the spies out in Langley
won’t declare a long weekend. Whether it is Morsi or Shafiq, the party
is over for Washington. Rather it is time for Washington to take stock
and adjust to Egypt’s new reality.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

Article source: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/whoever-wins-egypts-presidency-the-party-is-over-for-washington/257974/