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.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr (l.) meets with US Undersecretary of State William Burns (c.) and President Mohammed Morsi at the presidential palace in Cairo Sunday.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sits down in Cairo this weekend with Egypt’s first freely-elected president, she might have preferred he was a representative of the country’s secular democratic political sector.

Instead she will be face to face with President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But with the United States having supported the Egyptian revolution that swept Hosni Mubarak from power and resulted in the election of Mr. Morsi, Secretary Clinton will have no choice but to associate the US with the rise to power of political Islam in the traditional leader of the Arab world.

 In her highly symbolic two-day visit beginning Saturday, Clinton’s task will be to demonstrate America’s support for the new democratic path Egypt has embarked on – even as she delicately underscores the priorities the US will hold to as it builds a new relationship with leaders it didn’t prefer to see in power.

“This was never our favorite result, but on the other hand Secretary Clinton has been at the forefront of our urging Egypt towards democracy, so it would be hard to say now that we aren’t going to recognize the democratic result,” says Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel. “I think she understands we have to get [a problematic history with the Muslim Brotherhood] behind us, and see how we can move forward.”

At the same time, Clinton will remind Egypt’s leaders – both Morsi and the military council of generals that has yet to relinquish much of its power to the country’s new civilian leadership – that the world is looking to the governing powers to serve all Egyptians and uphold the country’s international commitments.

By all Egyptians, she will mean women and religious minorities (Coptic Christians) in particular. By international commitments, she will especially mean Egypt’s US-brokered peace treaty with Israel.

Clinton was adamant about personally delivering America’s message, State Department officials say, even though in the eyes of some regional analysts this is not the best moment for highlighting the state of US-Egypt relations. American influence is as low as it’s been in perhaps four decades, some say – since the end of Gamal Nasser’s rule in 1970 – and Egyptians, from the leaders on down, are focused on domestic issues.

But other experts say this attention to the domestic scene – which more than anything is a focus on jump-starting the economy and creating jobs for millions of young Egyptians – provides a potential opening for the US to wield some influence where it otherwise has little.

“Domestic issues are first and foremost for the Egyptians, and supreme among those issues is how to revive the economy – and that’s where we potentially have some influence,” says Patrick Clawson, director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They do need money for that.”

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.

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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