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Egypt shows US influence in Middle East in decline, say expert

The United States, wrong-footed by the tumultuous events in Egypt, is scrambling to make up lost ground as observers declare: 'The US won't be able to dictate its policies to the Middle East as it did in the past.'
People in Cairo's Tahrir Square celebrate the departure of Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow may prompt the US to urge reforms among its allies in the Middle East.
People in Cairo's Tahrir Square celebrate the departure of Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow may prompt the US to urge reforms among its allies in the Middle East.

Egypt's most celebrated modern novelist believes a democratic Egypt would "absolutely" diminish the influence of the United States, not only in his country, but across the Arab world.

Alaa al Aswany spent nearly two decades in the United States and was dismayed by Washington's "hypocritical" stance on the people's revolution that ousted the president, Hosni Mubarak.

Gravelly-voiced and forthright, the author of 2002's global bestseller The Yacoubian Building, said in a telephone interview from Cairo: "Just a month ago, Mr Obama said that Mubarak is a wise, great leader."

With Mr Mubarak's undignified removal, Washington has lost an ally it regarded as vital for Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, a bulwark against Iran's rising regional clout, and a force against militant Islam in the region. The US, wrong-footed by the tumultuous events in Egypt, was yesterday scrambling to make up lost ground.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the senior military adviser to the US president, Barack Obama, headed to the Middle East to reassure two key allies - Jordan, facing its own rumblings of civil unrest, and Israel, which sees its security at stake in a wider transformation of a once static Arab order.

Many Arab experts agree that political upheaval from Egypt to Tunisia and Lebanon has highlighted the limits of the US to shape events in a distant but vitally strategic part of the world, where it has been the dominant power for half a century.

"The US won't be able to dictate its policies to the Middle East as it did in the past. American influence in the region is on the decline," said Abdelbari Atwan, the editor of the London-based pan-Arab daily al Quds al Arabi.

The United States is likely to coax its allies in the region to advance reforms.

But if Washington's jittery allies become more responsive to public opinion they may also be more critical of American policies, in particular the US's support of Israel.

It was significant, however, that the American flag was not torched in Tahrir Square, Mr Atwan said in a telephone interview. This was a "clear message" to the US that "democracy doesn't mean anti-Americanism - but it will mean a balanced relationship".

Mr Aswany agrees. He trained in the US as a dentist, a profession he still practises in Cairo, before becoming a novelist.

Like many Egyptians he draws a distinction between the American people, 82 per cent of whom, he said, "supported the Egyptian revolution", according to polling surveys, and US foreign policy, which is a "model of hypocrisy".

The Yacoubian Building, which has been translated into more than 20 languages, details the disparate lives of residents in a Cairo apartment block that serves as a microcosm of Egyptian society.

Many Arabs, meanwhile, view Turkey, Nato's only Muslim member, as a model that has successfully melded democracy and Islam, while putting its relationship with the US on a more equal footing.

The Turkish government, for instance, responded to public opinion by refusing to collaborate with the US's 2003 invasion of Iraq, and is staunchly championing Palestinian rights.

Anti-American sentiment on the "Arab street" remains high despite Mr Obama's outreach to the Muslim world. It is more than coincidental that states shunned by Washington, such as Syria, seem the most immune to the political upheaval convulsing some other Arab countries.

Despite the repressive nature of his regime, Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, has boasted he would ride out the storm because he was in tune with popular opinion in his country, which opposed the US invasion of Iraq and supports Palestinian and Lebanese groups militantly opposed to Israel.

Other Arab governments, which have also faced pro-democracy protests, have rushed to address concerns. Jordan's King Abdullah last week sacked his country's prime minister, Samir Rifai, over the slow pace of reform and reshuffled the cabinet.

Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has promised to scrap his country's 19-year-old state of emergency. In Bahrain, home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, the King proclaimed on Friday a grant of US$2,700 (Dh9,916) to every Bahraini family.

Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, eyeing protests in the Arab world, has promised to step down when his term ends in 2013 in a major concession to opponents in the Arabian Peninsula state, a key US ally against al Qa'eda. He also promised not to pass power to his son.

Even before the tumult in Egypt, American prestige had received hefty body blows from friends and foes alike in the Middle East.

Increasingly tough, US-driven sanctions against Iran have clearly failed to curb the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions.

In Lebanon, the Iranian-sponsored Shiite Hizbollah movement last month toppled the US-backed government of Saad Hariri.

And an Iran-friendly government is in power in Baghdad, thanks to the US invasion of Iraq that was undertaken ostensibly to spread democracy in the region.

Meanwhile, despite the huge amounts of US aid it receives, Israel has made Washington look powerless by stubbornly spurning American calls to halt settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and to engage in serious peace talks with the Palestinians.

But talk of a "post-American Middle East" is premature and misleading, some experts say. Egyptian foreign policy is now likely to become more independent but will still maintain good ties with the US for commercial and other reasons.


Updated: February 13, 2011 04:00 AM