x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Egypt's old allies must come to terms with a new power

Things have changed in the region, yet America's priorities have not – and it will soon have to adjust to the new realities.

Fresh from their extraordinary meeting in Cairo, Egypt's president and America's secretary of state are back on the road. But where they each decided to go after their meeting tells you a great deal about what has changed in Egypt's politics - and what has not changed in America's.

Who would have imagined, even a year or two ago, that Egypt would be ruled by an Islamist president such as Mohammed Morsi, or that America's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet him with smiles and apparent camaraderie? The Arab spring has overturned so many long-standing assumptions about the region.

But not the hard realities of politics. Mrs Clinton went from Egypt straight to Israel, where she met yesterday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Doubtless, she sought to calm Israel's fears over a changing Egypt. With the old regime of Hosni Mubarak gone and a new democratic government (gradually) dawning, Israel fears a much tougher stance from its western neighbour over its occupation of Palestinian land.

America's priorities - as Mrs Clinton made clear in Egypt - remain the same today as they have been since the 1970s. Washington wants "stability", for which read: peace with Israel and military access to the Suez Canal.

Yet Egypt has changed, in ways that aren't altogether obvious but will have profound repercussions for US policy in the region. Democracy will bring with it new conflicts with the superpower, as a resurgent Egypt seeks a new place in the Middle East.

Look at Mr Morsi's two trips abroad. His first was to Saudi Arabia, a country that sees itself as a natural leader in the Middle East. So, too, does Turkey aspire to regional leadership. Egypt used to fill that role, and probably will do so again. As a regional rivalry grows among these three, it will change all of their relationships with the US.

Mr Morsi's second and continuing trip is to Ethiopia. This is in itself a break from the Mubarak era - the former president had not visited his near neighbour for almost 20 years. Egypt intends to flex its muscles regarding Ethiopia's plan to build a dam that could diminish the flow of the Nile into Egypt.

Moreover, Mr Morsi has announced he would work for a common African market - signalling an intention to play a leading role not only among Arab countries, but in greater Africa as well.

A resurgent and democratic Egypt will necessarily have its differences with the United States, which remains the most powerful military actor in the region. The US will have to tread carefully, balancing its public pronouncements on democracy and independence with its strategic national interests. It can still play an important and positive role regarding Cairo - billions of dollars a year in aid still buys a lot of leverage - and could push the military junta towards relinquishing some of its power.

The most obvious challenge to the long-held status quo is likely to come over the Israeli occupation. The US has shown it can accept an Islamist president and even democracy in Egypt, as long as its priorities are met. And the US relationship with the military - and Cairo's desire to maintain good relations with Washington - will mean there is unlikely to be too much change in the relationship, too fast.

But over Israel and Palestine, the cracks will soon appear. They have already started: last week, Hamas's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on Egypt to keep the Rafah crossing - the only crossing between the Strip and Egypt, and the only way out of Gaza not completely controlled by Israel - open for 24 hours a day. The number of Palestinians allowed to cross daily has already been increased; free movement will probably be enhanced further.

That would be a problem for Israel, which continues to enforce a crippling siege on Gaza as punishment for Hamas's election victory in 2006.

If, as seems increasingly likely, there is more instability in the occupied land and more violence against Palestinians in Gaza, Egyptians will probably demand Rafah be opened permanently, or that refugee camps in Egypt for Palestinians. All of this would be a major headache for both the US and Israel, which had long relied on the Mubarak regime to reinforce the Gaza siege.

Real democracy will change Egypt, and the region. Mr Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party's coming confrontation with the military, and the need to win elections against secular and, even more pressingly, Salafi rivals, will make them much more responsive to what Egyptians want. And what Egyptians want is unlikely to be more of what came before, which is what America wants.

The new Egypt that Hillary Clinton has just left is likely to become a very different political animal very soon - and everyone, including America, will need to adjust to that reality.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai