The proliferation of the controversial film Innocence of Muslims has instigated the recent round of inflamed US-Muslim relations, resulting in domino-effect protests in various South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African countries. Unintentionally, release of the film has also provided a glimpse of the Obama administration's current policy on the new Egypt.
On 13 September 2012, during an interview with an affiliate of the US network MSNBC, Obama stated that Egypt was currently not considered an ally nor an enemy of the US. The comments came a few days before Congress stalled renewed negotiations with the Egyptians tied to economic and military aid, as a result of the violent demonstrations around the US embassy in Cairo. A bird's eye perspective of the situation would suggest that the US is taking a step back from its previously close ally in the Middle East. But why?
To suggest that the US is uneasy about Egypt's Islamist government would seem too simplistic – or is it? What is clear is that a sense of wariness of the newly elected Egyptian president and Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohammad Morsi, has surfaced. During the MSNBC interview, Obama openly stated that Morsi's government had "responded to various events" in a way that didn't align strategically with the US. To decipher to what exactly Obama was referencing is impossible. However a few foreign policy issues are of immediate concern to the US. Israel, Hamas and Iran and their relations with Egypt could indeed be behind US concerns, and thus, its newly acquired position.
Firstly, given that Israel's safety and regional strength might continue to be a cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East, Egypt's relations with Israel are vital to the US. With the democratic victory of the Brotherhood, apprehension over the preservation of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty exists in Tel Aviv as it does in Washington. Considering the Brotherhood's links with Hamas and historical criticism of Israel's activities vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause, this has been a realistic concern. This may be the reason why Obama made it clear during the interview that the preservation of the peace treaty was indispensable.
Interestingly, Egypt's recently elected Islamist government has chosen to do business with Israel. The crucial peace treaty, on which the region's future stability relies, is expected to stand, according to a high-calibre Israeli defence official. Importantly, the decision to uphold the peace treaty should not come as a surprise, as Egypt's own interests are at stake. Indeed soon after the overthrow of Egypt's 20th century pharaoh – Hosni Mubarak – Congress added conditions to its current Egyptian aid program, requiring the US State Department to certify that Egypt is abiding by its peace treaty obligations. Egypt's US$ 1.5 billion worth of economic, political and technological support is by no means a small subsidy to lose.
Another major bone of contention for Israel, and by proxy the US, is Hamas. Until the election of Morsi, Hamas found itself isolated with all of its support coming from geographically detached 'allies' (Syria, Iran and Hizballah). Now with ideological links to the Brotherhood just over the border, it finds a more politically and ideologically empathetic neighbour. A case in point - Hamas' mid-July 2012 trip to Cairo to garner political and strategic (gas and petroleum) support was declared a success by its leader in-exile Khaled Meshaal. Notwithstanding links to Hamas and the possibility of jeopardizing the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, to date Egypt has been sending positive signals to the US by remaining committed to the notion of a two state solution. Additionally, Morsi has hosted reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas.
A closely associated issue for the Palestinian territories is the shared border between Egypt and Gaza (Hamas territory). This stretch of territory is considered the illicit route for all sorts of supplies into Gaza through a well-established tunnel economy. A loosened control of the tunnel network and thus circumvention of the Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza could lead to increased flows of weaponry into Hamas's enclave. Some of these weapons are suspected to be of Iranian origin.
In the future this may be a point of elevated tension between Israel and Egypt and one which the US is keenly watching. So far, however, no changes to Mubarak's policies have been recorded and Morsi has been politically positioned at the forefront of an Egyptian-coordinated assault (Operation Eagle) against terrorist cells and the closure of the tunnels in the border areas.
Lastly is Iran: currently the most time-consuming foreign policy quagmire for the US. In the MSNBC interview, Obama may have been referencing Egypt's participation in the August 2012 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, hosted by Iran, as one of those 'responses to events' that did not align with US interests.
Currently, the US diplomatic stance is to isolate Iran over its nuclear ambitions, the sponsoring of terrorism and an unenviable human rights record. Accordingly, Morsi's recent trip to Tehran to participate in the NAM summit was a blow to US efforts. In fact, not only was it a blow, it was the first major diplomatic exchange between the two countries since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution and the cutting of relations due to the adoption of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Nevertheless contrary to perceptions that Egypt was strategically inching closer to Iran, the outcome could not have been further away. During the summit, Morsi openly criticised the Syrian government (Iran's main ally in the Middle East), which led to them walking-out in protest.
Morsi's actions demonstrated Egypt's interests in not bowing to Iranian influence or sympathizing in any way with the Alawite regime in Syria, as well as its regional power-grabbing antics. As such, Egypt proved that it was not actively pursuing agendas that would contradict those of the US. Its attendance at the Tehran summit was more a demonstration of its sovereign right to act independently, as stated by former Egyptian deputy foreign minister Abdallah el-Ashaal.
So, reverting back to the question – is it the Islamist government which has unnerved the Obama administration? The answer is most probably no. Nonetheless it's surprising that Egypt, a staunch Arab partner of the US for more than 30 years, is now being considered a party with a mediocre relationship at best. Egypt to date has not undertaken any subversive manoeuvres that conflict with US foreign policy in the region. Moreover Egypt stands to gain from a sturdy relationship with the US. Conversely, with Egypt in its infancy as a new democracy, this is the moment where the US can positively nurture Egypt, and even win some hearts and minds in the process.