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Hillary Clinton to meet Egypt’s new president: what is at stake

Hillary Clinton is delivering important US messages to Egypt's newly-elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood: on women, minorities, the peace treaty with Israel, and US support for democracy.

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Earlier this month the State Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, traveled to Cairo to lay the groundwork for Clinton’s trip, and after a meeting with Morsi suggested what might be the contours of a US deal with Egypt’s new leaders: The US would go to bat for Egypt in the international financial institutions (for example for a debt-relief package) with the understanding that Egypt will enshrine democratic principles and women’s and minorities’ rights in the new constitution it is writing and in practice.

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Egypt would also be expected to maintain its state of peace with Israel and enforce all terms of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

But some analysts like Mr. Clawson say they are concerned that Clinton will emphasize a need to conclude Egypt’s political uncertainties, rather than honing in on the importance of building a democratic Egypt.

“My concern is that her message is going to be, ‘Finish up this transition to democratic rule,’ when I think a better message at this point would be, ‘It’s most important that you have an inclusive process that listens to every element of your deeply divided society,’” Clawson says. “We’ve often made the point that an election does not of its own make a democracy, and I think we need to deliver that message in Cairo.” 

Certainly Clinton will arrive in Cairo at a moment of political turmoil, with Morsi, the courts, and the military in a kind of three-way tug-of-war over power and authority. But that shouldn’t have to stop her from expressing US support for Egypt’s democracy – and for seeing Egyptians resolve their own political difference, says Ambassador Walker, now a professor of global political theory at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

“There’s no question she’ll be visiting with things in a very confused status, she’ll have to be very careful how she handles her approach so that she doesn’t appear to be taking sides,” Walker says. But at the same time, he says, Clinton should be encouraged by how the vying powers have addressed their differences so far.

“The Egyptians seem to be able to work these things out themselves, this is not a violent confrontation,” he says. “They’re sitting down together and working things out.”

Yet on one issue Clinton simply can’t afford to stay on the sidelines, and that’s the matter of how Egypt’s new leaders plan to handle the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. While the military council has expressed no interest in touching the treaty, Morsi in the presidential campaign called for reopening negotiations and pressing for amendments.

Clinton will likely press Morsi behind closed doors on the importance of leaving the treaty untouched – even as she hopes that the new president’s focus on domestic issues will push any talk of amending the treaty to the background.

As Walker knows from his own ambassadorial experience, Congress will waste no time jumping into the fray on any sign of trouble for Israel. Already 35 members of Congress have called for withholding all aid to Egypt – including $1.5 billion in annual military assistance – until its new government reaffirms Egypt’s support for all its treaties and for peace with Israel, and recognizes “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”

Says Walker, “Nothing would turn Congress [against Egypt] faster than some effort to undo the [peace] treaty.”

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