May 20, 2018

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  • Op-ed: Egypt-US: The ‘ally’ issue

    Screen grab shows President Morsi during a recent interview with the New York Times.


    “That depends on your definition of ally,” was the boisterous response of Egypt’s President Morsi when asked this week if he considers the US one. It certainly wasn’t the sniffling apology some in the US were expecting after Morsi’s initial failure to react to the attacks on the embassy in Cairo, but who can blame him? Nevertheless the apology was apparently sufficient as a brief meeting between Clinton and Morsi yesterday concluded with the US signalling with clear intent that aid to Egypt would continue unabated.

    As Iran’s leaders will testify, Morsi is one apparently unused to the diplomatic mood. His response belies a man who feels he has done nothing wrong and will mutter an apology under his breath just to keep the US happy.  However his hesitation in condemning the attacks was another diplomatic aberration from a country which not so long ago was described in a US embassy cable as  “an indispensable ally” .  One has to wonder if the table thumpers so keen to see conditions placed on US aid to Egypt are equally vocal when greater amounts of aid are distributed to the other countries at America’s “indispensable ally” party guilty of greater wrongs.Of greater concern for the moment is the suggestion, entertained by the likes of the Washington Post, that Morsi “tolerated, or even stoked” the initial protests. Whilst such an accusation is difficult to prove, in a week where his lack of action has been the main focus, Morsi’s words, or lack thereof, have taken center stage.

    Admitting that he took this time in reacting, Morsi has had little to say about his position on the protests themselves considering the Muslim Brotherhood was a noticeably loud voice in their initial propagation. In an interview with the New York Times, with the issue of the protests still at the fore, he argued that successive US governments had essentially purchased the hatred of the people of the region by supporting authoritarian regimes and backing Israel over Palestine.

    While he eventually condemned the violence, he deliberately refrained from soothing relations with the US, preferring to mirror President Obama’s ambivalence over the “ally” question. His position on the protests is relatively clear, namely that it is almost deliberately unclear. He will neither openly support or denounce the protests (denouncing only the violence). By the same token he won’t, as a mother might say, apologise properly to the US, nor will he succumb to those calling for ties with the US to be severed. Lest the “friendly uncle” look has you fooled, Morsi is indeed a capable politician.

    Even though the US has a genuine grievance, considering the tragic consequences of an attack on their embassy in Egypt’s close neighbor Libya, Obama’s remark about neither considering Egypt an ally nor an enemy must be seen in the context of the upcoming US presidential election. Can he politically afford to declare Egypt an indispensable ally when Morsi, like Obama, is trying to appease his own core support, one which is neither particularly friendly towards the US or Israel?

    As is clear from the outcome of Clinton’s meeting with Morsi yesterday, the US is happy to talk strong on Egypt while pushing through the $1 billion or so in aid without conditions. In fact, it is difficult to reconcile the categorisation of this financial donation to an “indispensable ally” as aid at all when both sides have arguably an equal interest in maintaining what the relationship itself represents in real terms.

    One side’s political interest is the other’s economic one, and despite what many are saying, for the moment this relationship is safe.

    Nour Bakr is a British-Egyptian freelance writer on Middle East politics and currently serves as an Associate Editor with the digital newspaper Your Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter @nour_bakr.

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