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Not eye to eye
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 10 - 2008

On the eve of the US elections all eyes are focussed on foreign policy scenarios to be adopted by the next US president. Assem El-Kersh, Dina Ezzat, and Gamal Nkrumah interviewed , Egypt's ambassador in Washington for the past nine years, and Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador in Cairo
Not eye to eye
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Ambassador says the next US administration must adopt a new foreign policy style
When Egypt's ambassador to Washington for nine consecutive years, , returned to Cairo a few weeks ago at the end of his stay in the US (spent for all but one year under the presidency of George W Bush, who is not known for his foreign policy aptitude), Egyptian-US relations had taken a form and fashion noticeably different from that he encountered during his first year under Bill Clinton, a true connoisseur in style and diplomacy. Simply put, the honeymoon was over and Cairo and Washington, described often as engaged in a Catholic marriage, were confronted with the need for mutual accommodation to keep a fruitful union turned sour tolerable.
Today, as the US and the world -- and certainly Egypt -- prepare to mark, and maybe even rejoice over, the end of the Bush years, there are no indications or guarantees that the next US administration, Democratic as many around the world hope, or Republican as many fear, will turn a new page that could herald improved US-Egypt relations. The attacks of 11 September, the all but complete demise of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the sad drama in Iraq, the perplexity in Afghanistan, the unstoppable rise of Iran and the metamorphosing role of Turkey have rendered US-regional relations changed, perhaps once and for all. The outbreak of the world financial crisis and the marginalisation of the UN are also aggressively changing international relations.
According to Fahmi, the Barack Obama or John McCain years (he would not share his educated guess as to which it will be) could see the situation sweeten or sour, depending on how Egypt acts. "We have to swim ahead. This is the best way by which we can be seen, heard and positively engaged," Fahmi said in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly earlier this week. "To avoid falling behind, you have to be a step ahead," he added.
In the analysis of Fahmi, an advocate of Egyptian- US strategic cooperation, Egypt, "a regional power", is not incapable of putting its imprint on the Middle East agenda or the US as "a global power". On the contrary, almost every time the US successfully intervened in the region was when it followed the lead of Egypt while its failures (Fahmi all but refers to Iraq) arose when its foreign policy direction diverged from that of Cairo.
In 1973, when Egypt went to war to liberate territories occupied by Israeli forces in 1967, the US had to be engaged in the Middle East, Fahmi argued. He added that when in 1977 late president Anwar El-Sadat offered his peace initiative, or when in the early 1990s Cairo supported the Palestinians in pursuit of secret talks with the Israelis in Oslo, the US had to get onboard simply because the game was formulated and in play. According to Fahmi, the move towards a settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle was initiated by Egypt and pursued by the US. Moreover, the intensity and ingenuity of Egyptian involvement in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations decided to a great extent the achievements of this process.
"And peace is not the only example," Fahmi insisted. For this career diplomat whose father, Ismail Fahmi, was one of Sadat's foreign ministers, resigning over the quality and content of the Egyptian- Israeli peace agreement, Egypt's support for liberation movements in the Arab world under Nasser could not have been ignored by the US, just as much as the influence of Islamist movements -- mostly offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood -- could not be overlooked in Washington.
Even when it comes to the "handling of terrorism" (tellingly, Fahmi eschews US "war on terror" jargon) the US needed to pay attention to Egypt even though it criticised Egypt's early warnings, made prior to the New York attacks, and when Washington has not been paying sufficient attention to Cairo's repeated appeal that the US attend to the root causes of terrorism: the occupation of Arab territories and the limitations imposed on Arab development horizons.
"Egypt cannot be ignored, especially when it takes the lead with a close focus on Egyptian [and Arab] national interests," Fahmi said. He added that by being a step ahead, Egypt often avoids getting into confrontations with the US because the trend is set in line with Arab as well as American interests from the beginning. "We do have our disagreements and we do say no to policies that we see as conflicting with our interests," Fahmi said.
Egypt's disagreements with the US during the Bush Jr -- and for that matter Clinton -- administrations are easy to identify. In 1995, Egypt and the US went into diplomatic confrontation over the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which all Arab countries are members and from which Israel is still exempt. In 2000 the confrontation reoccurred with the treaty's regular review conference finally calling for Israeli inclusion in the non-proliferation regime. In July 2000, Egypt turned down US demands (read by Cairo as pressure) to convince late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to sign to a peace settlement that Clinton and then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak were trying to railroad at Camp David II.
In 2003, Egypt, at the highest level, took a stance against the US war on Iraq and warned against its consequences, both on Iraq's ethnic and territorial integrity and overall regional stability. This year, and despite exception that Cairo takes to Tehran's Middle East agenda and despite joint coordination between Cairo and Washington within the 6+3+1 mechanism, Egypt has firmly and repeatedly declared its opposition to any military assault -- American or Israeli -- on Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.
As a prominent political advisor to Egypt's former foreign minister and now Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa, and then as Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Fahmi was active in Egyptian management of all these diplomatic battles. In all instances, he argued Egyptian diplomacy made the difference in a way that prevented escalation. Fahmi is convinced that Egypt, "just as the US", has a national interest to look after and that by situation the two are "leading and trend-setting" states, "one at the regional and the other at the international level," their bilateral relation unfolding "in a context of coordination and not confrontation".
Offering explanation to the US administration, Congress and public of the Egyptian stance is not always easy, Fahmi well knows, due in main to the many influences of "third" parties on Washington -- "not always or only Israel". In most cases, the objectives of Egyptian diplomacy could be served via US policy. In 1956, he argued, the US supported Egypt during the French-British-Israeli trilateral aggression because it wanted to stand up to the former colonial European powers while in 1973 Washington engaged with Egypt in the peaceful settlement of the war with Israel and subsequently with the launch of the peace process because it wanted to keep Egypt away from previously strong Russian influence.
On Iraq, Fahmi added, despite Cairo's failure -- and that of other leading capitals -- to convince the US against the use of force on Iraq outside of the legitimacy of the UN Security Council, it has recently been making progress in convincing the US that it is in the interests of Middle East stability -- and consequently US regional interests -- to maintain Iraq as a unified central state.
Nonetheless, something went wrong with Egyptian-US relations during the recent years. Why has their former warmth been lost? And why has President Hosni Mubarak not been to Washington for five years, a previously well-observed annual destination? Is it a matter of a lack of chemistry between Mubarak and Bush, or the latter's exaggerated bias towards Israel and his destruction of Iraq?
For all of these questions Fahmi has one answer: relations between Cairo and Washington have faced serious challenges due to a confluence of reasons that include political and economic developments as well as the interplay of individuals involved. While the honeymoon is over, relations are not yet cold.
"The fact of the matter is that Egypt and the US have different bases and even different ideologies for their foreign policy choices, and as such they are bound to have different opinions," Fahmi said. He added: "However, intellectually we are not at loggerheads." According to Fahmi, differing national interests and events like the 11 September attacks, added to the proclivities of certain individuals, especially the neoconservative current, accentuated otherwise anticipated disagreements.
For most of the last eight years, Cairo and Washington disagreed on the need to enhance or shelve the Arab-Israeli peace process, to contain rather than attack Iraq, and to isolate and eliminate terrorists rather than attack nations in the name of war on terror. Behind such disagreements, however, there were accords. Egypt and the US agreed that it was not in the interests of peace that Arab-Israeli talks be exhaustive and inconclusive. They also agreed that Saddam Hussein was not promoting stability in the Middle East. And they agreed, though after time, that terrorism is a serious threat to regional and international peace and stability. "So even if we say, and truly so, that we tended to share rather than to disagree on the objectives, we would still have to admit that we disagreed on the tactics involved in achieving these objectives," Fahmi said.
The call for democracy, Fahmi said, is a case in point of conflicting US-Egyptian understanding with regard to "objectives and tactics". As far as Fahmi is concerned, the US's call for democracy in the Middle East was to a large extent an objective shared by many Arab countries. The difference was in the type and application of democracy as well as the pace of introducing it to Arab societies "that were already modernising their social and political norms".
The nature of a Palestinian state was another issue that prompted US-Egyptian disagreement. While the US suggested that a democratic Palestinian state could initially come to life under Israeli occupation and then gain independence upon agreement with Israel, Egypt differed and insisted that this was "an undemocratic concept to start with".
The former Egyptian ambassador is quick to add, however, that a "dark cloud" has been hovering not just over US relations with Egypt but also over US relations with the region in general. "It was a case of miscommunication with the entire region, and as a leading player in this region, Egypt was particularly affected by this miscommunication," he said. "Neither wanted [a complete collapse] to happen". And where governments disagreed, civil society acted in mutual accord. So despite Egypt failing to negotiate a much wanted free trade agreement with Washington, Egyptian trade with the US expanded and US investment in Egypt almost quadrupled.
For Fahmi, the maintenance of US economic and military aid to Egypt, despite gradual reductions bilaterally agreed upon since 1998, and "compatible with the Egyptian economic growth", is proof of US awareness of its interest in supporting the Egyptian economy and military. Egypt's political successes, including convincing the Bush administration that its failure in Iraq could be contained by a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli settlement, were achieved when Egypt managed to convince the US that its interests matched those of other players -- including Egypt -- in the region.
"We have to keep our voice heard, and to keep talking about what is beneficial, not just what is right," Fahmi said. He added: "As such we should not just be reminding the next US administration that it needs to support the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 because it is the duty of the US to honour international law; we should also explain to the new administration that it has a vested interest in reaching a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
This approach applies whether it is Obama, "who tends to be more inclusive in his approach towards foreign policy," or McCain, "who is more tangible," that ends up in the Oval Office. In all events, Fahmi added, the next US administration will "need to listen to its friends [in the region] and pursue a long-term perspective [and policies] on the basis that the US is a global and not a superpower that should [pursue] a balance of interest, not a balance of power. This entails securing Middle peace, making all the region, not just Arab countries, free of all weapons of mass destruction, and stabilising Iraq."


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