x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The US-Egypt relationship will need a long time to heal

The US President Barack Obama appeared genuinely moved by the events in Egypt, but if he imagines Egyptians have no memory of past deeds, he is deluding himself.

President Barack Obama is right: the rebellion that forced Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak off the stage of history is bad news for al Qa'eda. No question, it represents the triumph of the path of democratic people's power over nihilistic violence when it comes to toppling a US-backed autocracy. But al Qa'eda has been a factor only in Washington's conversation about Egypt; never in Egypt's conversation about itself.

Last week, the US punditocracy was still wondering whether al Qa'eda could be lurking in the wings of Egypt's popular rebellion, but that's simply a symptom of Washington viewing Egypt through the lens of its own concerns - first the Cold War against the Soviets; then the "war on terror"; now the campaign to isolate Iran; and always, Israel's concerns above all else.

That's the perspective that made Mr Mubarak first among equals of US allies in the Arab world. And Washington's bogeymen are only too happy to oblige. Ayman Zawahiri will soon release a tape, from the margins of history in the wilds of Waziristan, scolding the Egyptians for presuming to overthrow a leader without his help, but no one of any consequence in Egypt will pay it much heed.

And Iran - the other Egypt scare story popular in Washington, in which a democratic revolution in the Muslim world is inevitably a Trojan Horse to be hijacked by Bolshevik Islamists as happened in 1979 - in its own propaganda hailed Egypt's "Islamic Revolution" led by the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egypt's was not an Islamic Revolution, and the Muslim Brotherhood were the first to slap down the mullahs in Tehran.

And Israel?

The idea that Mr Mubarak's ouster would spell the end of the Camp David peace agreement was squelched even before the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on Saturday made it clear that Egypt would continue to uphold all its international treaty obligations. The Muslim Brotherhood had argued for the same position earlier in the week. A democratic Egypt has no incentive to engage in conflict with Israel as long as its own territory is not being occupied. Israel has more to worry about in the fact that Cairo will no longer be an ally in its war on Hamas, and that a democratically elected Egyptian president is unlikely to reprise Mubarak's role in leaning on or providing cover for the Palestinian leadership making deals with Israel that would not be acceptable to their own people.

More importantly, what Israel - and also those in Washington who see the future of the Middle East as the continuation of a Pax Americana - really have to fear from Egypt is its inspiring example. First, it offers a Gandhian success story of the power of collective action by unarmed people to face down injustice. Things could get very uncomfortable for Israel if the Palestinians start doing the same in larger numbers than they are now.

The Obama Administration, aware of the power of Egypt's example, has been trying since Friday to harness it to its own purposes, banging on about the need for Iran to recognise the same rights as Egypt's protesters have established for themselves. Well said, except the idea would carry more credibility if Washington was demanding the same of Algeria, Jordan or any number of US allies throughout the Middle East.

President Obama, speaking on Friday, appeared to recognise that the wider significance of Mr Mubarak's ouster is that Arabs have introduced themselves to the world, smashing the narrative shackles of self-serving Western orientalist fictions about fanatic Arab masses needing to be kept in check. Mr Obama appeared genuinely moved by the spectacle of Egyptians claiming their dignity and their place in the pantheon of nations that have overthrown tyrants, hailing their non-violent path as an echo of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But if he imagines Egyptians have no memory when he says "the United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt", he is deluding himself.

Wael Ghonim, the young internet entrepreneur behind the Facebook-based protest against the murder in Alexandria of Khaled Said, has been hailed as a pioneer of the uprising. The fact that he's the regional marketing manager for the US internet giant Google appealed to an American instinct for claiming parentage of democratic impulses on distant shores, but this consummate representative of Egypt's globalised Facebook generation had some blunt words - via Twitter, of course - hours after Mubarak fell: "Dear Western Governments: You've been silent for 30 years supporting the regime that was oppressing us. Please don't get involved now."

But Mr Obama was not going to hold it against the Egyptians that to win their freedom they had to overthrow Mr Obama's own closest ally in the Arab world. "Today belongs to the people of Egypt," he offered generously, "and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people." He hailed Egypt's protesters for "what they did ... the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world".

Yes, they have. But while the American people will clearly recognise their own values in those who inspired the Egyptian revolution, their government's policies in the Middle East have been driven not by American values, but by American interests defined in ways that have little to do with those values. The uncomfortable truth for Mr Obama, in Wael Ghonim's tweet, is that those in Egypt who have risen to fight for freedom do not count America a friend; until now, it has been an obstacle.

So the world as changed by the Egyptians is an uncomfortable one for US interests, as traditionally defined for the past six decades. If America is to be a friend to Egypt, and to all those struggling for the rights he proclaims as universal, President Obama's own government may have to adjust its own assumptions, expectations and policies more than most.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron