Whatever happens in Egypt's September parliamentary elections, or the presidential elections two months later, one thing is certain: the United States will not emerge the winner. America is held in such low esteem by the Egyptian public that a recent Gallup poll found over half its respondents opposed to their government accepting aid from Washington. Such a reaction is nothing less than remarkable given Egypt's precarious economic situation.
Estimates of GDP for the Egyptian fiscal year 2010-11 have dropped for an initial projection of 5.5 percent growth to a paltry 1 percent. That may be an optimistic estimate, since tourism, the country's second most important source of foreign currency, has dropped by nearly 50 percent and is unlikely to rise any time soon. Unemployment is currently at 9 percent, but with factories closed and minimal growth, the jobless rate is likely to rise. Inflation is at 12 percent and climbing. Worst of all, there has been a flight of capital out of the country, indicating that Egypt's wealthier classes have little confidence in their country's immediate future.
The Obama administration has already announced that it will issue $1 billion in loan guarantees to help Egypt borrow on the world markets at favorable rates. Washington has also stated that it will convert $1 billion of Egyptian debt into "investments." American assistance should be welcomed by a people more than three quarters of whom, according to a poll by the International Republican Institute, view their current economic circumstances as either "somewhat bad" or "very bad." But that is not the case at all, and the negative attitude of the Egyptian populace towards the United States augurs poorly for the future, regardless of which parties dominate the new parliament or who is elected president.
President Obama and his team continue to operate under the illusion that high-flown words in well-meaning speeches will somehow win over the Egyptian public, and, for that matter, the "street" in other Arab states. They forget that while Americans have short memories, that is not the case with respect to people elsewhere—and especially those who live in the Middle East. In Egypt, resentment over American support for the Mubarak regime will take years to abate, and radical Islamists—even the supposedly more "moderate" Muslim Brotherhood—will do all they can to stoke Egyptian anger at Washington.
Whoever governs Egypt over the next few years—and there may be more than one change of government, hopefully peaceful change, possibly a coup by a military that becomes frustrated with the politicians—is unlikely to turn the clock back to a better time between Washington and Cairo. Egypt desperately wants to reclaim its position as the leading state in the Arab world. It cannot do so if it does not seek to distance itself from the United States or to engage Iran, America's most vocal enemy in the Middle East.
Nor will Egypt be accepted as an Arab leader unless it keeps Israel at arm's length. For years, Israelis paid little attention to Mubarak's pleas for progress in the peace process. While complaining about Egypt's "cold peace," Israeli policy makers did little to show Mubarak that they appreciated the access he gave their warships—even submarines—through the Suez Canal, or his support for the blockade of Gaza, or his neutrality during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Now they no longer have Mubarak, and even the current government of military and technocrats has reversed his policies, to Israel's detriment. They can expect no better, and possibly much worse, when a new parliament and president are installed. Washington has been the custodian, and financier, of the peace between Israel and Egypt; a serious deterioration in relations between the two countries hardly serves American interests.
What can Washington do to better its standing in Cairo? Not very much. It certainly should not cut off the billions it gives Egypt in economic and military assistance. At a minimum, maintaining the security relationship ensures that the Egyptian military will hesitate to generate a crisis with Israel that not only might lead to a costly and most likely unsuccessful war, but also would result in an immediate cut-off of the logistical and training support that America provides its forces. Nor should the administration fail to act promptly on its more recent promises of additional economic assistance. It must demonstrate that its words do lead to action.
Nevertheless, Washington should go no further, at least until the new Egyptian leadership takes shape. With America's budget deficit out of control, with an unemployment rate that is as high as Egypt's, if not higher, with massive expenditures committed to reconstruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan and with a war in Libya that is as endless as it is mindless, Washington should resist calls for a new Marshall Plan for an Egypt that would not appreciate it. Western Europe was deeply grateful for America's generous assistance after World War II. The least the United States can expect is a similar recognition of American generosity, and until then, maybe, for a change, American charity should begin at home.
Image by Caros Latuff