What Egyptians want from Washington

Citizens seek more equal relationship with US to enhance Cairo’s regional standing.

Egyptians have called for political reform and media freedom at home [EPA]

Egypt is set to use its president’s visit to Washington to trumpet its position as a key US ally and major regional player.

Hosni Mubarak and Barack Obama, the US president, are expected to discuss a number of regional issues including the pivotal Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Iran’s nuclear programme, stabilising Iraq, and fighting armed Islamist groups throughout the Middle East.

But many ordinary Egyptians, who once cared about their country’s foreign policy, may no longer be interested in such talks.

Abdullah al-Ashaal, a professor of international relations and law at the American University in Cairo, says Egyptians will tune out because they believe the meetings in Washington on Tuesday will follow “an elitist agenda that has no direct link to the ordinary Egyptian citizen”.

Al-Ashal, a critic of Egyptian foreign policy who describes himself as an independent political intellectual, said: “The most important item on Mubarak’s agenda in Washington is to visit the White House. The man has in the past lost hope in visiting the White House and he has been dreaming about this visit.”

Five-year absence

Mubarak has not visited the US since 2004, when the administration of George Bush, Obama’s predecessor, pressed the Egyptian government on political plurality and democratisation.

Bush, left, visited Cairo often, but Mubarak has not been to the US since 2004 [AFP]

At that time, Bush pressed some of Washington’s traditional Arab allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to create multi-party political systems and hold free elections.

But he quickly backed away from this once it became clear that such elections had led to the rise of Islamist groups in Iraq, Egypt, and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Obama administration has applied a more realistic approach towards the region.

It has been seeking the help of Arab governments in securing Iraq and pushing forward the peace process with Israel in return for turning a blind eye to political repression and media crackdowns.

Obama’s strategy is a boon to Cairo which shares Washington’s interest in minimising the influence of Iran and Islamist groups in the region.

In the meantime, Egypt continues to reject domestic and foreign pressure to democratise.

Deeper disdain

Al-Ashal’s comments also reflect Egyptians’ widespread disdain for the way their government often uses its foreign ties, especially with the US administration, to gain domestic and regional leverage.

Many Egyptian intellectuals are unhappy with the way Egypt-US relations have been developing in the past 40 years.

“For more than a third of a century, Egypt has been saying ‘yes’ to the US regardless of what it asks for”

Galal Amin, author and economics professor

“For more than a third of a century, Egypt has been saying ‘yes’ to the US regardless of what it asks for. Egypt has followed the same rule in its foreign, domestic, Arab, and economic policies and in its relationship with Israel,” says Galal Amin in his book Egypt and the Egyptian in the Era of Mubarak (1981-2008).

“The result of this period was a continuous deterioration in Egypt’s political status at the Arab and international levels,” Amin, a bestselling author and professor of economics at the American University in Cairo, adds.

The author believes contemporary Egyptian foreign policy was shaped by the defeat in the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel dealt a humiliating blow to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the then-president, and put an early end to his goals of transforming Egypt into a regional power.

Egypt emerged with huge war costs, which weakened Nasser’s image and pan-Arab ideology, shook the people’s trust in their country and leaders, and pushed his successor, Anwar Sadat, to adopt a more conciliatory approach.

This helped pave the way for Egypt to later sign a peace accord with Israel in 1979.

New role

In 1979, Egypt was prescribed a new regional role: it would assume the position of regional ally and advocate of peace with Israel in exchange for annual military and economic aid from the US.

Egyptians want political reforms, greater human rights and regional clout [GETTY]

After hardline Islamists assassinated Sadat in 1981, Mubarak took the helm and continued adopting US foreign policy in the region.

He inherited a daunting foreign debt and a country exhausted from two major wars (1967 and 1973); an economy in difficult transition from socialism to open market; and a growing Islamist challenge.

Many blame the Mubarak for caving in to US demands and for limiting Egypt’s regional role in an unprecedented fashion.

Even his supporters, such as Mustafa el-Feqi, the chairman of the Egyptian parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a senior member of the ruling National Democratic party, have lamented the decline of Egypt’s regional role in recent years.

“Many are talking about the decline of the Egyptian role and its clear dwindling. However, what happened is that Egypt has focused too much on its domestic problems and economic conditions,” el-Feqi said in an editorial published in al-Hayat newspaper last year.

“[A country’s role] is more dependent today on its economic capabilities. Each role has its political, media, cultural, and military cost in addition to the political will … this applies to a great extent on the situation of Egypt during the last two decades after it was exhausted because of wars and complex internal problems,” el-Feqi added.

What Egyptians want

Many Egyptians also question the role that US aid has played in shaping their country’s foreign policies since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Accord.

They believe US aid is conditional and demands heavy political sacrifices that have weakened Egypt’s Arab ties, its regional role, and the ability to defend fellow Arab countries.

“America’s military aid to Egypt has not been met with any improvement in Egypt’s political status neither in the world at large nor in the Middle East. Moreover, Egypt’s standing deteriorated in the region,” says Amin in his book.

Egyptians also feel that the US has ignored their appeals to press Mubarak, along with other Arab leaders, to implement political reform, respect human rights, and foster freedom of the press.

“The Egyptian citizen wants stronger ties between Egypt and the Arab world. He wants to feel dignified in standing up to America and to Israel,” says al-Ashaal.   

“He wants to feel respected in his country and abroad … and he wants a democratic political system and an efficient and transparent government.”

When the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised political opposition group, won 20 per cent of seats of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, in 2005, the government slowly began to renege on its reform promises.

In 2008, it extended emergency laws put in place after Sadat’s assassination.

It has also during a number of occasions arrested top Brotherhood leaders and prosecuted some of them in military courts.

The government has also pursued journalists, bloggers, and political activists and amended the constitution to make it very difficult for any opposition political party to nominate a candidate in presidential elections set for 2011.

The Bush administration did not seem too interested in Egyptian democracy as it focused on the so-called war on terror and the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Mubarak meets Obama, Egyptians will continue to aspire to a foreign policy that is more independent and a political system that is more liberal.

Right now, they feel that current US foreign policy supports neither goal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.

Source : Al Jazeera

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