Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up a two-day visit to Cairo on Sunday, the first since Egypt’s historic presidential election won by an Islamist candidate, potentially reshaping ties between these old allies against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Arab world.
Clinton cautiously reaffirmed America’s commitment to Egypt’s power transfer as a recent tug of war between newly elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s top generals seemed to lodge the transition in limbo. She urged the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to fully support a handover to civilian rule while pressing Morsi to maintain his commitment to establishing a democratic state.
“Egyptians are in the midst of complex negotiations about the transition, from the composition of your Parliament to the writing of a new constitution to the powers of the president,” Clinton said at the joint conference with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr. “Only Egyptians can answer these questions, but I have come to Cairo to reaffirm the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and for your democratic transition.”
Morsi, who was officially named Egypt’s first postrevolution president on June 24, has pledged to empower the Egyptian people, taking on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has served as the interim ruler since former president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation last year. Days after assuming office, he reinstated the Islamist-dominated Parliament dissolved by the high court only days before the presidential election. The court overrode the decision, but Morsi defied the order, calling on Parliament to convene, heightening tensions in a country frail from unrelenting disquiet.
A staunch ally of Mubarak’s, the United States has been impelled to evolve with the Arab world, engaging with Islamist groups it once shunned and hedging its bets with governments that bear no track record. Clinton highlighted that despite America’s support of the Mubarak regime, it was consistent in advocating human rights and calling for an end to Egypt’s oppressive emergency law. In a meeting with Morsi on Saturday, she urged the president to take minority groups into consideration amid fears that the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafi Islamists would clamp down on civil rights and restrict religious freedoms in the country of 82 million people.
Prominent members of the Coptic and Evangelical churches, including billionaire Naguib Sawiris, declined an invitation to meet with Clinton, rejecting a perceived interference by the U.S. in Egypt's internal affairs.
“Things are still very fluid,” Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at National Defense University, said from Cairo. The United States “needs to keep the good relations with the military. That relationship is the cement of the overall relationship with Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood relations are still putty rather than clay and potentially volatile.”
Egypt is among the top five recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, receiving about $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid—a check America has cut annually since the signing of the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978. Clinton said the U.S. is focused on boosting trade and investment in Egypt, as well as job creation, and is prepared to commit $250 million in loan guarantees to Egypt’s small and medium-size businesses. A high-level business delegation is scheduled to visit Cairo in September to create the U.S.-Egypt Enterprise Fund, with $60 million in capital in the first year. Economic activity in Egypt has languished since antigovernment protests began in January 2011, following an exodus of investors, a drop in foreign reserves to well below half prerevolution levels, and the stunting of tourism and retail sectors.
The relationship between these old allies took a dip earlier this year after Egyptian authorities accused more than a dozen American democracy workers of receiving illegal foreign funding, barring them, and other non-American colleagues, from leaving the country. Bail was set at $300,000 for each of the nonprofit workers, and the military-led Egyptian government finally released them in February amid a global outcry.
“I don’t see Egypt’s newly elected government having a bad relationship with the United States,” said Hani Sabra, an Egypt expert at Eurasia Group. “What the new Egyptian leadership is going to want is a change in tone from that where the Egyptian government merely follows orders from Washington, or Tel Aviv, or Riyadh.”
With changes afloat across the region, some observers believe that America’s role moving forward will be overshadowed by the mounting influence of Arab Gulf nations—particularly Saudi Arabia—which provide both financial backing and ideological guidance to the vulnerable transitional governments of the Arab Spring. Last week, Morsi made his first state trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah. Morsi is also taking a greater interest in African affairs than his predecessor did. He traveled to the African Union Summit in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Sunday—marking the first attendance by an Egyptian leader since 1995.