Last week’s visit to Cairo by US Secretary of State John Kerry is continuing to stir debate in Egypt and raise questions about Washington’s evolving relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi.
The visit underscored the rapprochement between the two sides since the Islamists came to power in Egypt, which analysts note has been based on the Brotherhood pursuing pragmatic policies that do not challenge core US foreign policy goals in the region.
This was underlined in the discussions held during Kerry’s visit to the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ), points out Mahmoud Kamel, a journalist specializing in economic affairs.
At the talks, the Egyptian side asked for the QIZ accord to be amended, but not its key provision that Egyptian textiles granted tariff-free access to US markets must contain Israeli components. Rather, a reduction in the required proportion of Israeli components was sought, along with an increase in the number of industrial zones to which the agreement applies.
The latter request, according to Kamel, reflects the current Egyptian government’s desire to muscle in on businessmen associated with ousted former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime, who are the principal beneficiaries of the agreement.
The US attitude to the Egyptian Islamists has been equally pragmatic.
American affairs expert Amr Abdel-Aati notes that Kerry, as chairman of the house foreign relations committee, was an early advocate of US engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood so long as it acquires power by democratic means, does not threaten US interests in the region, and remains committed to the Camp David peace agreement with Israel.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power in Egypt, Washington has sought to use it to put pressure on Palestinian groups, especially the Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas movement, and also to promote its broader regional agenda.
“[The US] has been trying to take advantage of the presence of a Sunni Islamist president in Egypt in a way that counters the spread of the Shia current that supports Iranian influence in the region and denies it Arab legitimacy via Egypt,” says Abdel-Aati.
There is no shortage of “cards” the US can employ to exert pressure on Cairo in this regard.
These include its control of the international financial institutions whose help Egypt needs to overcome its financial crisis (Kerry affirmed during his visit that the US would support Egypt’s current bid for an IMF loan); bilateral economic aid and occasional loans; crucial military aid; and pressure over questions of human rights and religious freedom.
Less obviously, Abdel-Aati argues that having conferred a kind of international legitimacy on the Muslim Brotherhood by engaging with its representatives, the US is also in a position to withdraw that legitimacy.
According to analyst al-Izb al-Tayyeb, Morsi was promised American support over the IMF loan in exchange for an undertaking that the new government would continue running the national economy in accordance with liberal policies and refrain from any measure that would threaten the interests of Western companies and businesses in Egypt.
Similarly, Washington’s support for the Brotherhood is contingent on Morsi not adopting a radical stance against Israel, and continuing to adhere to Camp David – something the Brotherhood fiercely criticized during Mubarak’s reign. Tayyeb notes that Morsi made a point to reassure Kerry on this front.
Morsi is said to have been concerned by earlier remarks by President Barack Obama that seemed to imply the US no longer considered Egypt a strategic ally. Kerry assured him there would be no fundamental change in US policy toward Egypt as long as the aforementioned conditions were met, according to Tayyeb.
But Tayyeb argues that despite the success of Kerry’s visit to Cairo, there is little prospect of the kind of US-Egyptian relationship that existed under Mubarak. Since Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt has been building new bridges with countries that the US considers foes, like Iran, or rivals, such as China.
On some things, however Egypt’s new rulers evidently see eye-to-eye with the American side. That includes Syria, where both concur on the need to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.