x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Clinton's visit to Cairo reflects a balancing act

Hillary Clinton said many of the right things in Cairo on Saturday. But did she mean them?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke again in support of democracy in Egypt during her visit to Cairo at the weekend. But to be sure, US secretaries of state have often given lip service to the ideal.

So far, however, Washington seems to have found the right balance in Cairo between its old allies in the military and the newly elected President Mohammed Morsi. In meetings with Mr Morsi on Saturday and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi yesterday, Mrs Clinton chose - in public at least - to stand on principle.

By calling for the army to "return to a purely national security role", Mrs Clinton appeared to put the US behind Mr Morsi and the elected parliament. That matches familiar rhetoric about democracy, but US support was far from guaranteed.

The Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Mr Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, is viewed with suspicion in Washington, to say the least. There are genuine foreign policy disagreements, but in a US election year, there is also considerable political gamesmanship. On the blinkered US conservative fringe, as The National's columnist James Zogby noted yesterday, anything short of outright hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood is still portrayed as a virtual betrayal of America.

Washington needs to come to grips with a new Middle East, one in which Islamists will play a prominent role. That will have implications for relations across the region, and in particular for Egypt's cold peace with Israel since the Camp David Accords. Regardless of who wins November's election, the White House should acknowledge that its scope of influence may be limited.

There will be little record of what Mrs Clinton said to Field Marshal Tantawi, although it is easy enough to guess some of the substance. For decades, America and Israel had been on good terms with Egypt's military-backed rulers - at a price of $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) a year in US foreign aid to Egypt, fully $1.3 billion of which goes straight to the military. There is no indication that this will change, or even that the US will use that lever to help to pry loose the military's grip on the government.

Another $1 billion in US aid for the civilian government is in the pipeline. At some expense, then, the US is hedging its bets. Washington must realise, however, that a new Egypt requires a new relationship.