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How Egypt's protesters will change US ties

The new Egypt is likely to emerge as more independent, diverging from US wishes in certain areas – such as reaching out to Iran. But the allies still have long-term common interests.

By Correspondent / March 4, 2011

Egypt's new Prime Minister-designate Essam Sharaf delivers a speech during a pro-democracy rally at Tahrir Square in Cairo March 4. Sharaf told thousands of protesters that he would work to meet their demands and saluted the "martyrs" of the country's revolution.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters

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Cairo

Egypt’s popular uprising toppled the leader of the nation that is a cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East, raising concerns that America could lose its leverage with a key ally. The strength of protests in Tahrir Square today, nearly six weeks after the revolution began, demonstrates that popular pressure is likely to play a key role in shaping the post-Mubarak era.

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But while the new Egypt is likely to emerge as more independent and willing to diverge from US wishes in certain areas, it will simultaneously seek to maintain good ties with its American ally, say analysts. Charting a more independent course could help Egypt regain some of the regional clout it has lost over the past decades as it stagnated, partly as a result of its support for US policies.

“The nature of the relationship is going to change, but we're not talking about a fundamental realignment in bilateral US-Egypt relations,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “The focus is going to be on rebuilding Egypt, and US support and assistance is going to be essential in that process. But it will take on a different flavor.… It's not going to be a patron-client relationship anymore.”

Popular pressure for harder line on Israel

While Egypt's new leaders won't be elected for several months, when they come into power they will be under pressure to change Mubarak-era policies that were deeply unpopular. In particular, Mubarak’s support for Israel was a source of anger to many Egyptians.

The former president’s policy of helping in Israel’s blockade of Gaza by keeping Egypt’s border with the coastal enclave mostly shut for years was for many an indication that he would do the bidding of Israel and the US at the expense of the Palestinians. And the government’s deal to export natural gas to Israel, at what some Egyptians believed were artificially low prices, was yet another source of anger. During protests before Mubarak’s fall, some protesters carried photos of Mubarak with a Star of David drawn on his forehead.

“Mubarak cares more about pleasing the Americans by being friends with Israel than he does about taking care of his own people,” said Negla Sayyed on Feb. 1, amid an angry Tahrir crowd. “We don’t hate the US, [but] we want to be our own nation. We don’t want to take orders from the US anymore.”

A new Egyptian government would likely respond to popular pressure by taking what the population might see as a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and warming up ties with all Palestinian factions, says Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. The Mubarak government, which mediated reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, was widely seen as favoring the secular Fatah faction over its Islamist rivals.

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