Over the weekend when it became clear that Egypt’s presidential elections would go to a run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, some observers were quick to claim that the latter’s victory would bring a collective sigh of relief inside the Beltway. This was obviously pure speculation, which means something on Twitter, but it raises an interesting question: Who is better for the United States, Morsi or Shafiq? Let me caveat by stipulating that the United States is essentially a sideshow here; the most important issue is who will be better for Egypt. That is something for Egyptians to decide on June 16th and 17th. Nevertheless, given Washington’s long-term ties to Cairo, American officials and Egypt observers are trying to understand what is in store for U.S.-Egypt relations under either President Morsi or President Shafiq. Readers of this blog can pretty much guess that I don’t think either candidate is “good” for the United States, which means Washington will have to adjust to new Egyptian realities. No one is Hosni Mubarak and while the notion that he did everything the United States wanted is not entirely accurate, he did “understand that Egypt’s interests lie with the United States,” according to an official who served in George W. Bush’s administration.
Morsi is the more complicated and interesting candidate, but against the backdrop of U.S.-Egypt relations, it’s pretty clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is not likely to embrace the strategic relationship. The Brothers have run against the Washington-Cairo link since bilateral ties grew stronger in the mid-1970s. They used the issue to pillory Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak and delegitimize a regime whose legitimacy rested in large part on nationalism. It is important to remember that the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood lie in Hassan al Banna’s dismay over foreign—i.e. Western—penetration of Egypt that damaged traditional values. I am not saying that the Brotherhood hasn’t changed since the early 1920s when al Banna first arrived in Cairo, but mistrust of the khawaga is part of the organization’s DNA. To be sure, the Brotherhood espoused a pan-Islamic message at times, but at a basic level, the Brothers are good nationalists. Fast forward to the January 25th uprising, which was about dignity and national empowerment, and you understand further why a President Morsi is unlikely to make his first international visit to the United States. The Brothers were a bit late to the uprising and Morsi needs to court—as he seems to be doing—the revolutionaries, liberals, and Lefties who made the uprising possible. Those folks are not known to be enamored with the United States and U.S. policy in the Middle East. Indeed, add U.S. support for Israel and the fact that the Brotherhood’s previous electoral platforms indicated that U.S.-Egypt ties under Mubarak essentially warped Egyptian foreign policy, and the writing—in day-glo colors—is on the wall about the bilateral relationship under Morsi. Some have suggested that Egypt is in such dire straits economically that it will force Morsi to accommodate himself to Washington because Cairo will need U.S. aid and goodwill in order to secure international assistance. That is probably true and you already see the Brothers trying out logically contorted arguments about the United States and assistance, but given what is at best a deep ambivalence or at worst the profound hostility of Egyptians toward Washington, the relationship is going to change.
Ahmed Shafiq, in contrast, seems to have a U.S.-friendly background: He was an air force commander, minister of civil aviation, and served, if ever so briefly, as Mubarak’s last prime minister. Shafiq was a fully engaged senior official of the old order, which benefited militarily, diplomatically, and financially from U.S. patronage. I wouldn’t make much of Shafiq’s military background when it comes to the United States. He wasn’t trained in the United States, though he did a fellowship stint on combined arms training in France. By all measures, he was a proficient airman, serving in all of Egypt’s wars since his commission and seems to be well-respected among the senior officers—he’s been their presidential candidate—but here is the rub, the Egyptian military has not been terribly happy with its American friends. The American military aid to Egypt has become an annual political fight with Congress over conditionality that doesn’t sit well with the officers in addition to the fact that $1.3 billion, which needs to be spent in the United States, doesn’t buy all that much these days. Moreover, the remnants of the old regime, of which Shafiq is now the standard bearer, were angry over the way the United States handled the uprising. Hosni Mubarak carried Washington’s water in the Middle East for almost 30 years to his political detriment and from where supporters of the old regime sit, the Obama administration unceremoniously dumped a longtime ally. I am told that the felool are over it. I am not convinced, but even if they are, it is hard to believe that President Shafiq will embrace the United States given the way Mubarak was treated. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the Obama administration pursued the wrong policy when it came to the conclusion that the Egyptian president had to go, but that Shafiq and his supporters likely have a different view of that episode and it could affect bilateral relations.
Finally, precisely because Shafiq represents the old order, he needs to demonstrate some space between himself and the policies of the past. Even if he wants to roll back the changes that have occurred since the uprising and has held himself out as the restorer of order, the uprising has fundamentally altered Egypt’s political arena in important ways. For all their problems and political limitations, revolutionary groups, liberals, leftists, Salafists and a variety of others have discovered ways to make their voices heard. It’s clear that Shafiq understands this as he has softened his position on the uprising considerably since it became evident that he would be in the run-off. Like Morsi, Shafiq needs to appeal to voters beyond his natural constituency. The twin exigencies of broadening his base and demonstrating that he isn’t Hosni Mubarak in a different Rolex and a cardigan sweater means that, among other things, Shafiq may well run and potentially govern against the United States. The U.S.-Egypt relationship is too big and juicy a political target for Shafiq to ignore because it serves both of his political interests at once.
So you see, no dancing in the streets outside the State Department, the champagne will not flow at the Pentagon, the spies out in Langley won’t declare a long weekend. Whether it is Morsi or Shafiq, the party is over for Washington. Rather it is time for Washington to take stock and adjust to Egypt’s new reality.