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.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

“It will be sympathetic to Palestinians and for this reason will be quite critical of Israel. But Egypt will maintain normal relations with the US,” says Dr. Sayyid. He adds that Egypt could become very similar to Turkey, which has emerged as a regional leader popular with Arabs partly for its criticism of Israel despite ties with the US and its Jewish ally. Sayyid says Egypt would likely “call on the US to adopt a more even-handed approach to the two sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Keeping peace with Israel – but also warming to Iran, Syria

The Supreme Council of Armed Forces has been careful to make clear that Egypt will uphold its previous commitments, including the 1979 Camp David peace agreement with Israel – one of only two Arab peace deals with Israel, and a key reason that Egypt has long been a top recipient of US foreign and military aid. Analysts see no threat to that agreement in the near future from Egypt.

“Any democratically elected government will not be favorable to Israel,” acknowledges Hamid. “Does that mean Camp David is going to be under threat? No. No one is talking about that right now, not even the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Indeed, a US official says the relationship between Egypt and the US is based on long-term common interests.

“In terms of US-Egyptian mutual interest in peaceful resolution of regional conflicts, our commitment to counterterrorism, and our joint effort over many years to reinforce those goals by investments in trying to modernize and improve lives for Egyptians and economic opportunities, as well as our security assistance relationship with the government of Egypt – we think these are key elements of this partnership and we would hope, [we] anticipate, that it would carry on for the same reasons,” says the official. “That we would find that we have ongoing, durable interests in working together in this region."

Other areas in which Egypt may assert its independence are in improving relations with Iran and Syria, both part of the "axis of resistance" against Western influence in the region.

Egypt has no diplomatic relations with Iran, which named a street in its capital after the assassin who killed former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. But even Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, which is deeply hostile to Iran, have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, points out Sayyid.

So while a friendship between Egypt and Iran is not in the cards, he says it would be wise for Egypt to at least talk to the Islamic Republic, and to Syria. “I think the right approach is to continue to be a moderating force in the Arab world, but in order to moderate, Egypt has to be open to all Arab parties, so it can find a common ground on which to build positions,” he says.

A renewed leadership role for Egypt?

Egyptians once took pride in leading the Arab world, but that role declined under Mubarak.

RELATED: Mubarak's legacy – and his downfall: A stale stability

Egypt’s new leaders won’t be elected for several months. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the group of military officers ruling Egypt until elections are held, has said parliamentary elections will be in June, and presidential polls in August.

Egyptians, who captured the imaginations of Arabs across the Middle East with their stunning popular uprising, currently appear to be focused on achieving key domestic demands, like deep and long-lasting changes to the Ministry of Interior and the security apparatus.

“Egypt's standing is so low that it can only go up,” says Hamid, who adds that Egypt may try to steer a middle path between the pro-American camp and the Iran-Syria camp. “Egypt largely abdicated its role as a regional power. What this really means is Egypt will want to return to the world stage and regain its credibility.… Everyone is listening to Egyptians now.”

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