George W. Bush famously said that all countries would be judged to be either with the United States or with the terrorists. Barack Obama has done a lot to back away from this attitude (to be fair, Bush himself significantly toned down that kind of rhetoric during his last few years in office).
Though Bush’s pronouncement was dramatic, it should not have been especially surprising. Rhetorically, at least, Washington has long tended to see the world in black-and-white terms. The end of the Cold War did not change this. 9/11 reinforced it. In life, we all know that good friends need not agree on everything. In politics, this truth can sometimes be hard to remember.
What both sides need to keep in mind today is that saying that the power dynamics between Washington and Cairo need to be brought into the 21st Century is not the same thing as saying that the two countries can no longer be friends, let alone allies. The US and Egypt have a lot to offer each other so long as leaders on both sides understand that maintaining a close alliance and maintaining the status quo are not necessarily the same thing.
On one level, Washington is trying. A string of senior American officials, capped by the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have visited Cairo in the two months since President Mohammad Mursi took office. Mursi himself is scheduled to visit the US this fall.
If the two countries are going to lay the groundwork for a new relationship, however, American politicians and journalists are going to have to stop freaking out every time Mursi does something that Hosni Mubarak would not have done.
The most recent example of this concerned Mursi’s brief visit to Iran last week. The Egyptian president stopped off in Tehran for around four hours to put in an appearance at a Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting. During this brief stay he managed to irk his hosts with a denunciation of the Bashar Al Assad regime — strong enough that it led the Syrian delegation to walk out in protest and left the Iranians themselves looking visibly uncomfortable.
Mursi’s spokesman later said that the president held no talks about resuming diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran, which were broken more than 30 years ago.
One might have thought this would go down well in Washington, where there is an unfortunate tendency to see all Islamists as cut from the same cloth and a lot of people are worried about Mursi for reasons they are not always able to articulate.
None of this, however, received much attention in the US. To be fair, the domestic news cycle was a bit busy last week. Hurricane Issac managed to shave a day off of the Republican National Convention and then went on to hit New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of the city’s destruction by Hurricane Katrina.
Still, the lack of attention to Mursi’s time in Iran was unfortunate. In the days preceding his visit, there was a fair bit of hyperventilating among foreign policy types (Republicans especially), many of whom appeared to take the view that Mursi setting foot on Iranian soil validated every fear they have ever held about Islamists taking over power in Egypt. After all, in many US political circles, any contact with Iran is regarded as a sign of disloyalty. One can only hope that Mursi’s actual words and deeds in Tehran received the notice they deserve inside the White House and State Department, even if most of the media and lesser political lights had already turned their attention elsewhere.
States have interests. So do politicians. The Obama and Mursi administrations need to learn to work with each other because doing so is ultimately good for both countries and good for Obama and Mursi themselves.
Washington needs the largest country in the Arab World to remain a proponent, and source, of regional stability. It needs to keep the Egypt-Israel relationship alive at some level, because letting it collapse entirely will sow trouble throughout the Middle East.
Egypt, loathe as it may be to admit it, continues to need both Washington’s money and its support in international financial institutions — particularly the International Monetary Fund, from which Mursi is reported to be seeking a larger-than-expected loan.
In moving forward on these and other matters, the Americans are going to have to work on being less bossy — and the Egyptians on being less prickly.
Gordon Robison, a long-time Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.