from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Decline of American Influence

July 16, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Cairo, Egypt

In light of Secretary Clinton’s visit to Egypt over the last few days, I thought you might be interested in my recent piece from the Cairo Review. The full article can be found here.

When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi declared it his “duty” to free Omar Abdel Rahman—the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six and injured one thousand—it was not a very auspicious beginning for relations between the United States and the ‘new’ Egypt. The U.S. Congress, particularly the delegation from the New York City area, expressed outrage.

Egypt watchers and Middle East analysts sought to put the new president’s words in context. Morsi is weak. He needs to secure his base and play to public sentiment while he consolidates his power. He does not really intend to pursue Abdel Rahman’s release from U.S. federal prison. Washington would be better served to disregard what was clearly a calculated political move. There are more pressing issues in the U.S.-Egypt relationship than a sick and aging militant.

This sober analysis is entirely accurate, but it sidesteps the central change that has occurred in Egypt since the revolution. Hosni Mubarak could largely ignore public opinion because Egyptian citizens did not have a mechanism for holding their leaders accountable. Now they do. Current and future leaders who disregard public sentiment will do so at their own risk.

The consequence for the United States is likely to be a greatly changed relationship with Egypt. The strategic alignment and the partnership in pursuing Arab-Israeli peace are at best going to get more difficult to manage. At worst, this cooperation will come to an end altogether.

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