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The scenario is all too familiar: Violence erupts between Israel and Hamas. The U.S. President calls his Egyptian counterpart and asks for help in managing the crisis. The voice from Cairo assures the American president that Egypt will do everything to help calm the situation and immediately steps in to mediate between the parties.
This last time was different, however, since the Egyptian at the end of the phone line was not the strongman Hosni Mubarak but rather his post-revolutionary successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi. By most accounts, Morsi acted admirably in helping to bring about the cease-fire, working closely with Barack Obama in some half-dozen extended telephone calls. Indeed, the level of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation might suggest that little, if anything, had changed back from the days when Washington called upon Mubarak to help out with various Middle East crises. Let’s hope that’s not the case.
The crisis in Gaza provided a critical initial foreign policy test for the new post-revolutionary government headed by President Morsi. Egypt, for its part, demonstrated that its national interests trumped the ideological affinities of the Muslim Brotherhood. Aside from pulling its ambassador from Tel Aviv, the Egyptians responded to the outbreak of violence by working with Israel, not against it, to help mediate the crisis. And behind the scenes, the Egyptians clearly put pressure on the Hamas leadership to show flexibility and stand down rather than escalate the crisis and risk an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza. Note that Egypt also continues to enforce its part of Gaza’s “siege” by preventing the free flow of goods and people at Rafah.
The benefits of Cairo’s recent approach are clear: it preserved its peace accord with Israel, thereby providing strategic stability for Egypt. At the same time, assertive diplomacy allowed Cairo to re-emerge as a regional fulcrum and power broker. By playing a lead role in brokering a cease-fire, Cairo also helped prevent a protracted and more deadly conflict, one that would have strained Egypt’s ability to simultaneously maintain its peace with Israel and its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological soul-mates in Hamas. Morsi will no doubt remind Obama of all this when he soon pays a visit at the White House.
Tempting though it might be, Washington would be making a tremendous mistake were it to lapse back into the old, dysfunctional habit of the pre-revolutionary period whereby Egypt worked to preserve the regional status quo in exchange for American largesse. While bilateral cooperation is desirable and necessary, it should not form the entirety of the bilateral relationship. The two countries must work to establish a healthier and more honest relationship based on the mutual interests of the United States and the Egyptian people.
This means that while Washington must acknowledge the benefits of Egypt’s recent behavior, it must also recognize that the “new Egypt” behaves out of self-interest. So too must the United States. Regional stability is an important American interest. But with Egypt at the forefront of the dramatic transitions taking place in the Arab world, Washington also has a strong interest in promoting democratic norms and institution building in post-revolutionary Egypt. Today’s decree by President Morsi, arrogating further powers to himself above the powers of the courts, is a challenge to the revolution’s aspirations and to a real democratic transition. It represents Mubarakism without Mubarak.
This is a moment of profound opportunity for the United States in the Middle East, one in which Washington can demonstrate its support for the aspirations of the Egyptian people for dignity, democratic participation, self-governance, and accountable leaders. To do so, the United States cannot return to the old Faustian bargain in which Egyptian strongmen cooperated with the U.S. on regional issues in order to buy quiet from Washington for a free-hand at home. President Morsi did well on Gaza. He must also do well at home.