In a series of Middle East diplomatic visits last week, Mohamed Morsi made his first official trip as President of Egypt to Saudi Arabia, and Hillary Clinton met with leaders of Egypt and Israel as part of her last tour as US Secretary of State. Topics on their agendas included financial assistance for Egypt, the rise of political Islam, and the United States’ stance on Egypt’s transition. But at the core of talks remained one concern that has governed the region for decades: the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The treaty has done wonders for the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia by isolating Iran in the region. As long as this treaty is upheld, any leadership change in Egypt is irrelevant for US interests in the region.
Despite changing governance in the region, the United States will uphold its policies of the past three decades so long as it continues offering aid to the Egyptian military and the military respects its peace treaty with Israel. In 1979 following the Camp David Accords, the United States brokered a peace treaty between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Since then, Egypt’s military has received billions of dollars to maintain the peace.
During her visit to Egypt and Israel, Clinton discussed Egyptian-Israeli relations and US efforts to maintain cordial relations. Clinton stated that “we have a clear message of support for what the Egyptians decide is in their own best interest.” But what if a public opinion poll were to show that Egyptians believe a treaty with Israel is not in their best interest? After all, for years the Mubarak regime had been transporting gas to Israel at a lower than market price, a deal that was recently halted.
So long as the United States is able to maintain its policy that offers Israel and Saudi Arabia leverage over Iran, it will claim to continue supporting democratization movements. Morsi’s visit to Saudi Arabia does not sever Egypt’s relations with the United States. And nor does it imply a shift towards radical Islam. After all, Saudi Arabia still remains a staunch ally of the United States despite its flagrant human rights abuses.
Egyptians’ popular opinion is manifesting itself in a more visible rejection of the country’s subjugation to US interests. Mubarak’s subservient policies to the United States (and Israeli and Saudi power at large) have made Egypt one of three countries, along with the United States and Israel, without diplomatic relations with Tehran. But Arab League chief Nabil el-Arabi, Egypt’s first post-revolution foreign minister, has indicated a possible reopening of ties with Iran, stating that Egypt would “turn over a new leaf with all countries, including Iran.”
For the United States, election season always arrives with a heightened discussion of the Iran-Israel nuclear debate. The importance of Clinton’s Middle East visit was twofold: to visit Israel ahead of Romney and to ensure that Egypt’s new leader would not renege on the peace treaty with Israel.
While her visit to Egypt showed that the Egyptian public rejects United States-imposed policy, her official meetings showed a greater concern for maintaining the overall status quo in the region. What might happen to US-Egyptian ties were Egypt to reopen relations with Iran? There is currently no incentive to do so but also no interest in keeping a closed door policy with a nearby nation.
For now, the United States can rest assured that its policies of the past decades will remain as Egypt has greater domestic issues to tackle.