Egypt's newfound foreign policy assertiveness

Officials and academics who have expressed concerns over Cairo's new foreign policy are misreading its intentions.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R) (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R)
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Various Israeli and American officials and academics who have expressed concerns over Egypt’s new foreign policy are misreading Cairo’s intentions as well as the opportunities that a more confident and independent Egypt presents. The overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak was driven by Egypt’s domestic troubles – in particular its lack of political freedom and economic opportunity, which must be systematically addressed over the coming years. However, to meet the demands of its people, the new, more accountable Egyptian government will be driven to provide much-needed Arab leadership in the Middle East.
Contrary to those who argue that the Mubarak government served to safeguard Western interests, it sat idle as the influence of non-Arab states like Turkey and Iran and of Islamist actors like Hamas and Hezbollah rose in a region lacking in freedom and opportunity. In this respect, a more assertive Egypt that would give rise to Arab leadership could emerge as a critical actor in support of regional security, stability and peace.
Rather than carry the mantle of Arab leadership as the ruler of the most populous Arab state, Mubarak’s chief aim was the maintenance of his own regime. His ties with the US and Israel – and the resulting American aid – were his chief tools in this regard. His clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood also sought to achieve this single-minded goal.
Meanwhile, the country’s ties with key regional Arab nations like Syria, and non-Arab actors like Turkey and Iran, were frayed or seemingly nonexistent. These policies and the breakdown in Egypt’s foreign relations served to limit Egyptian influence in the region, even as it seemed to firmly entrench Mubarak’s presidency. The result: While non-Arab actors have wielded significant regional influence, Egypt virtually has none. And while domestic considerations served to ignite Egypt’s revolution, the lack of leadership only reinforced the image that Mubarak’s policies were contributing to the decline of the Arab world, rather than to its empowerment.
The response by the Egyptian military following the explosion of protests throughout the country – to support and protect, rather than disperse the revolutionaries – suggested a tacit acknowledgment of this fact and provided an opportunity to establish a clean slate. With Mubarak already at the advanced age of 82 and with the possible succession by his highly unpopular son Gamal – along with the continuation of failed domestic and foreign policies – the military elite recognized that it was time to seize the opportunity to create a much-needed change.
As the current Egyptian government stewards the nation in its transition to a more open and free democratic system, it has already begun to make the kind of domestic and foreign policy reforms that are needed to reassert Egyptian leadership. To be sure, it is understandable that the US and Israel are troubled by data like the recent Pew Research poll indicating that 54 percent of Egyptians would like to see the Israel-Egypt peace treaty annulled, and that 79% have a negative view of the US. Yet turning these figures around will require working with a new Egyptian government that is responsive to its people, not shunning or fearing it. Furthermore, privately and publicly, officials in the new government, as well as candidates for the presidency, have indicated their desire to demonstrate Egypt’s leadership and independence, yet still abide by its treaty with Israel and maintain strategic ties with the US.
In fact, in a recent interview with The Washington Post, new Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby stated repeatedly that Cairo “made it very clear from the first day [of the new government] that we want to open a new page with all the countries in the world.” Regarding Egypt-US ties, the foreign minister said he expected them to be “stronger than ever,” and in reference to Egypt-Israel ties he noted that his country “is going to comply with every agreement and abide by every treaty it has entered into.” Even so, Western fears of the new Egyptian foreign policy direction are centered on three key concerns: the new government’s outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran.
The Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly play a key role in Egypt’s future. Suppressing it proved unsuccessful under the Mubarak regime, and continuing to do so would be antithetical to the spirit of freedom and democracy that drove the revolution. It is important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood did not lead the revolution. This was by and large a secular revolution seeking to expand the same kind of freedoms and opportunities that are enjoyed by the West. Furthermore, the Egyptian revolution succeeded not by utilizing the violent tactics of Islamic extremists, but by holding peaceful protests in the streets.
The new government – and the military in particular – will not now jeopardize the hope for a better future that has filled its citizens by enabling the Brotherhood to co-opt the revolution. Rather, creating progress to greater regional leadership and expanded domestic opportunity will require the new government to co-opt the Brotherhood, instead of marginalizing it. If the new Egyptian government is to be responsive to its people, it must establish clear red lines with the Brotherhood – that its participation in national politics is welcome, but as a political party dedicated to abiding by the political process, not as sect of Islamist revolutionaries. A greater political role for the Muslim Brotherhood will translate into greater responsibility for the group – and with responsibility come accountability, moderation and compromise. As such, the inclusion of the Brotherhood will be an important component in establishing a relationship between religion and state that is uniquely suited to Egyptian society.
The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement is the first indication of the prospects for a stronger, more influential post-Mubarak Egypt. A conflict that Mubarak’s government had been mediating for years was concluded by the new Egyptian government in under three months. On Mubarak’s watch, the absence of influential Arab leadership indirectly enabled the violent conflicts to fester between Israel and Hezbollah, and Israel and Hamas. Already, under the nascent Hamas- Fatah unity deal, Hamas has indicated its willingness to allow Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel regarding a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and pledged, as a part of the agreement, not to use violence.
The Mubarak government’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, and strained relationship with the Brotherhood’s offshoot in Gaza – Hamas – effectively handcuffed Cairo from playing a meaningful role in moderating Hamas’s position or mediating Israeli-Palestinian disputes. While Egypt’s overtures to Hamas, MAGAZINE 35 and its intention to open its border with Gaza, may be troubling to Israel, Egypt’s interests remain to maintain stability and security along its borders – especially with Israel – while distancing Hamas from Syria and Iran. An Egypt that is better positioned to negotiate with Hamas is one that is more likely to succeed in moderating the group’s positions, in halting rocket-fire on Israel, and even in securing the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
The potential for Egypt to serve as a diplomatic conduit is also promising in regard to its renewed ties with Iran. As Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League and a leading candidate for the Egyptian presidency, told The Washington Post recently, “Iran is not the natural enemy of Arabs, and it shouldn’t be. We have a lot to gain by peaceful relations – or less tense relations – with Iran.” Egypt does not need to be Iran’s enemy, but it is a natural competitor.
If Egypt is to provide leadership in the Arab world, its ability to maintain dialogue and influence with nations across the region, from Israel to Iran, will be critical. Like its burgeoning ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, talks between Egypt and Iran offer an opportunity to better gauge the latter’s nuclear intentions, and might even put Cairo in a better position than Turkey to mediate Tehran’s disputes with the West. While working to moderate Iran’s behavior for the betterment of the entire region, no country is better positioned than Egypt to also warn Tehran of the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to threaten Israel existentially.
A stronger, more assertive and more democratic Egypt that seeks to advance its own interests could also further the interests it continues to share with the US and Israel: security and peace in the broader Middle East.
Certainly, the new Egypt will need time to develop its new regional posture. However, rather than view Egypt’s newfound assertiveness and independence as a threat, officials in Washington and Jerusalem should view Egyptian leadership in the Arab world as an important opportunity to improve relations with the Arabs, on the path toward achieving these long-elusive goals.
The writer is adjunct professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.