America Wants A Peaceful Transition To Democracy In Egypt. But If Israel Bombs Iran All Bets Are Off
Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington. US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has been in Cairo recently. It was a difficult trip because public statements and reality don’t always make sense. But that is the theatre of diplomacy and international politics for you. However, let’s not dismiss this Cairo trip and let’s ignore the other visits in the region. Why? Because this is the first time that the former CIA chief has met Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi. Important? If you know Panetta as some of us do, then the answer is ‘yes’. Mr Panetta is a man who works on eyeballs. He’s a one-to-one man. The impression of face to face dealings is for him of the utmost importance – whatever the cynics say.
Now to the reality of the trip: President Mursi was not Washington’s preferred choice as Egyptian leader. In fact the Americans were perfectly happy with the old Mubarak regime until the crowds in Cairo shouted loud and long enough to make the US realise that all along they must have got the wrong man. So decades of best friend relationships went out of the window after just one brief Oval Office meeting.
At first the Americans relied on the Egyptian generals to keep a grip on power. Americans like generals and even when they decry them as third world leaders the US seems to forget its own history (a quite recent one at that) of having a general in the White House. Make no mistake about US-Egyptian relations. The US needs Egypt with generals or not and certainly more than Egypt now needs America.
The recent visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a reminder, if one were needed, that Cairo and Washington have history and need it to keep going.
So is all in the diplomatic garden rosy after this trip? Not a bit of it. The word here in the Nation’s Capital is that the US wonders if Egypt’s new-found democracy is not about to get a bumpy ride into its next phase – its relations with other states in the region, especially Israel.
But first, the biggest bump to the system may be an internal confrontation.
President Mursi is Muslim Brotherhood. Critics say this is the bottom line of an advance of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. The more cautious suggest that this is wild talk. They say the reality of Egyptian politics is that the Muslim Brotherhood does not need to espouse fundamentalism and indeed, that would be politically foolish.
A little fundamental pronouncement goes a long way but for the general population of Egypt, especially those actively involved in the revolution, the story is not so simple.
For those who camped and cheered in Tahir Square, there is a sense that their demands are not to be met. To a man and woman they demanded change.
But no political party, nor the generals, can deliver change at the speed that the protesters demanded. It’ll take years, easily a decade to make the sort of changes (fundamental or not) in job creation, social comfort and freedoms that those demonstrators thought possible.
Economically it cannot happen quickly. Bureaucratically it cannot happen quickly. Hence the disappointment and disappointment breeds instability. This is one of the reasons that the generals have been so reluctant to give way. At heart the Muslim Brotherhood know all this, but the public face of Egyptian or any other politics does not work that way.
The Americans, again through Panetta, have a simple message really aimed at the generals: “The US strongly supports an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government” That’s domestic politics.
The tricky one for Panetta & Co is the attitude of the new government towards Israel. The strongest Israel-Egypt relationship was born in President Jimmy Carter’s Rose Garden. Its peace keepers, Sadat and Begin are long gone, but the animosities and doubts remain. Pragmatism may be the best deal here. But it could be usurped by a single issue: Iran.
If Israel tried to stop Iran’s nuclear programme by military means, then Panetta and Clinton before him understand that all bets for pragmatism would be off and flesh-pressing trips like this would be fewer and when they did take place it would be an grim-faced affair.