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US reacts to the rise of Islamists in Egypt elections

Analysts say the Obama administration would be willing to work with the election outcome, as long as Islamist parties were willing to play by the democratic rulebook.

Mohamed Yousri, left, a candidate in the elections, talks voters during the run-off of the country’s parliamentary elections at a polling station in Cairo yesterday.
Mohamed Yousri, left, a candidate in the elections, talks voters during the run-off of the country’s parliamentary elections at a polling station in Cairo yesterday.

WASHINGTON // The US-Egypt relationship is in for a turbulent ride as a new Islamist-dominated political reality looks set to emerge from Egyptian elections, analysts said.

As predicted, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was the main victor in Egypt's first round of parliamentary elections. The Obama administration appears to have readied itself for this, but it may have a battle on its hands with members of the US Congress opposed to the Islamist emergence in the region in general and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Analysts say the Obama administration would be willing to work with the election outcome, as long as Islamist parties were willing to play by the democratic rulebook. With Islamist parties also emerging victorious in Tunisian and Moroccan elections, the administration has little choice, said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The administration "would much rather that the liberal parties won, but I think they are going to try to do the best they can with what emerges", she said.

Relations between Egypt and the US would be shaped by the reception any Islamist victory was given in Washington as well as the behaviour by Islamist parties in power, said Ms Ottaway.

If western governments stop "ostracising" Islamist parties, it would help strengthen moderates, Ms Ottaway said.

The emergence of the FJP as the victor was predicted. What has surprised observers, and dismayed some, has been the strong showing by the more hardline Salafist Al Nour party, which beat secularist parties in the first round.

"It is essentially up to the secular parties, the US and other foreign powers to leave the door open to dialogue and cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, probably, the more moderate trends will prevail."

While the US administration appears to have come to that conclusion, the US Congress is another matter, and it controls the purse strings.

Egypt has been the second largest recipient of US foreign aid since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, but both the House of Representatives and the Senate have begun considering additional conditions for that aid in the past months. In 2011, Egypt is set to receive US$1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn) in military aid and US$350 million in economic assistance.

The US Senate has said that it wants to tie further aid on assurances that a democratic process would be upheld in Egypt. But a far more strident tone was evident in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

There Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the foreign affairs committee, had warned the administration not to engage the Muslim Brotherhood at all - which she in June described as "committed to violence and extremism" - or allow any funding, direct or otherwise, to benefit the movement.

A "tough moment" in US-Egypt relations looms, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

"There is no way these results translate into the US-Egypt relationship where it doesn't put pressure on this relationship," said Mr Cook. But that would have been the same with any serious political contender in Egypt, he pointed out, where Egypt's subordinate role to US regional policy has never been popular.

"The era in which the United States can sign deals with regional authoritarians and count on those authoritarians to calculate their countries' national interest contrary to public opinion seems to be over," he said.

okarmi@thenational.ae