Paul Pillar

Utilizing Egypt

As Egypt's transition toward a more democratic polity continues—and it is very much in the U.S. interest that it does—the principal U.S. priority should be not to do anything to screw up that process or to get the United States on the wrong side of it. That means not openly picking favorites in domestic contests for power, not rejecting the outcome of democratic procedures even when we would have preferred a different outcome, and encouraging the generals who are now in charge not to cut short the transition process.

The United States also ought to be thinking about how not only a changed Egyptian domestic scene but also changed Egyptian foreign policy, and especially Egypt's regional activity, can be in U.S. interests. More active Egyptian leadership in the Middle East would be a restoration of the natural role of this most populous of Arab states—one that it once, in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, exercised with confidence. The days of other Arabs ostracizing Egypt under Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat are long over. The Arab League peace initiative of 2002 represented a renunciation of the reasons for that ostracism. But it took the ouster of Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak, and the discarding of the baggage that had become associated with Mubarak, to enable Egypt to become Egypt again, with a full and active set of regional relationships. The recent Egyptian mediation of a tentative accord between Fatah and Hamas would not have been possible under Mubarak, given his regime's collusion with Israel in strangling the Gaza Strip. Now the Egyptians are getting beyond old animosities dating from the Iranian revolution to restore a normal relationship with Iran. Normal—as in how most states have relations with most other states, especially in their own regions, regardless of the temperature of the relationship. A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry stated, “We look at Iran as a neighbor in the region that we should have normal relations with. Iran is not perceived as an enemy as it was under the previous regime, and it is not perceived as a friend.”

A weighty regional state with normal relationships throughout its region represents the kind of diplomatic opportunity the United States can ill afford to pass up, or even to fail to play to its full advantage. Egypt may be especially useful as an intermediary with actors—including the likes of Hamas and Iran—with which the United States still has too much of its own baggage, or is still too tied up in its own political knots, to yet have a normal relationship. Egypt is one of three weighty players in the Middle East, each with its own particular kind of weight, that the United States needs to view this way, and it may turn out to be the most important of the three. The other two are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Saudis face their own political uncertainties. Turkey is unquestionably an important (increasingly so) regional player, but its Middle Eastern role will always be somewhat limited by not being Arab.

Egypt's external transition, like its internal one, is another subject on which the United States can screw up and needs to try hard not to. Screwing up means being piqued over relationships that Cairo forges, rather than seeing as an opportunity the regional leadership of which such relationships are a part. This transition is another one that the United States needs to stay on the right side of.

Image by Mohamed Adel