Where goes the U.S.-Egyptian alliance? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to bypass Cairo in her recent travels to Europe and the Middle East has highlighted official Washington's annoyance with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's regime. The

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Where goes the U.S.-Egyptian alliance? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to bypass Cairo in her recent travels to Europe and the Middle East has highlighted official Washington's annoyance with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's regime. The immediate cause of dispute was the Egyptian government's arrest of opposition leader Ayman Nour. (See "Dissident Watch," this issue). But bilateral strains extend beyond this single incident.

At the root of tension is an exaggerated Egyptian sense of self-importance, coupled with the Mubarak government's inability to adjust to new realities. Egypt's world-view is based on its historical claim to Arab leadership. Cairo views any U.S. attempt to bolster Washington's relationship with other Arab states or to expand the United States' strategic partnership with Turkey and Israel as a threat to Egypt's traditional role as the linchpin of regional security.

As U.S. foreign policy has grown more reliant on Jordan, the new Iraqi government, and the Persian Gulf emirates, the Egyptian government has struggled to reassert its strategic relevance. But its attempt to regain its former influence has come at a time when the Bush administration has begun to challenge the Middle East's traditional authoritarian order. Whether Mubarak can adjust to the new reality is an open question.

Roots of Egyptian Identity

Modern Egypt's claim to leadership in the Middle East extends back to the early nineteenth century when the Ottoman military commander Muhammad 'Ali (r. 1805-48) battled Wahhabis in Arabia, conquered Sudan, and sent Egyptian troops into Syria, at one point even threatening to invade the Ottoman homeland in Anatolia. Any pretense that Egypt was just another Ottoman province evaporated. She had exerted herself as a dominant regional power. With the Ottoman sultan's acquiescence, Muhammad 'Ali's family assumed hereditary rule, holding the mantle of leadership in Cairo until Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 revolution ended the monarchy.

Egypt's claim to leadership also rested on cultural self-identity. Until the early twentieth century, Egyptian identity was distinct from that of the Arabs.[1] "Arabness" was then defined ethnically; only those who traced their roots back to the Arabian Peninsula called themselves Arabs. The Egyptians, with a civilization stretching back millennia, embraced a unique identity. Only in the 1930s, did the linguistic definition of an Arab begin to take hold; Arabs were those who spoke Arabic. At the same time, Egyptian intellectuals embraced Egypt-centered pan-Arabism. Muhammad 'Ali 'Alluba (1875-1956), a prominent Egyptian intellectual of that period, spoke of Egypt's destiny "to bear the crown of all-Arab leadership" as well as "to fulfill its pan-Arab mission."[2]

The Arab League—of which Egypt was a charter member—viewed the Arabic language as a force capable of unifying as diverse a cultural, ethnic, and religious community as spanned the geographic expanse from Morocco to Somalia to Iraq. Such an attitude mirrored that of Sati' al-Husri (1880-1968), the Syrian ideologue of Arab nationalism, who contended that "every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Everyone who is affiliated with these people is an Arab."[3] Almost overnight, the Arab world expanded from the Arabian Peninsula and Fertile Crescent to encompass all of North Africa, the Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and even distant Mauritania. Egypt became the fulcrum of the Arab world and Cairo its crossroads.

Max Rodenbeck, the chief Middle East correspondent for The Economist and a Cairo resident for much of his life, related the Cairene sense of cultural leadership in his 1999 book, Cairo: A City Victorious:

To 250 million Arabic-speakers and one billion Muslims, Cairo retains a mystique, a stature, a reassuring gravity that no other city can match … It projects its own rhythms and language far and wide. The cassette-tape call to prayer wafting over a Javanese village was most likely recorded by one of the honey-tongued Koran reciters of Cairo. The music pulsing through the heat of a Moroccan Kasbah came from here, too, as did the satellite-borne soap opera enthralling a Kuwaiti financier's air-conditioned harem … When Arabs think of Cairo, they think of it as a repository of Arabness: the seat of the greatest universities, the largest libraries, the biggest-circulation newspapers, the most vibrant pop culture.[4]

Army colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser subscribed to the idea of Egyptian centrality, which he saw as both a political and military responsibility. Nasser not only sent Egyptian troops to combat Israel, but he also intervened in the Yemeni civil war. Like Muhammad 'Ali more than a century before, Nasser sought not only to lead but also dominate other Arab states. "We, and only we, are impelled by our environment and are capable of performing this [leadership] role,"[5] he wrote. Accordingly, Nasser disparaged the 1955 Turco-Iraqi pact, the core of the Cold War security arrangement that would grow into the Baghdad pact, which he labeled a plot to "destroy Egypt's prestige and position in [the] Arab world."[6]

The pattern continued through subsequent decades. For much of this period, Egypt placed itself at the forefront of the Arab world's confrontation with Israel. Egypt's early battlefield victories in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel enabled Egypt to reassert the prestige it feared had been damaged following the crushing defeat of 1967. With the 1978 Camp David accords and a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt the following year, President Anwar al-Sadat bolstered Egypt's position within the United States governments' Middle Eastern strategic framework, elevating his country to become Washington's principal ally in the Arab world, as well as the key to Arab normalization of ties with Israel.

But with the end of the Cold War, and especially events of more recent years, the situation has changed. Iran is on the verge of going nuclear. Yasir Arafat is dead, and Saddam Hussein in prison. More than 100,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq. The U.S. military maintains bases in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Despite such changes, the Egyptian leadership still sees itself as the most important state in the Arab world, if not in the entire Middle East. Speaking at the inauguration of the Council on Egyptian-American Relations in March 2000, Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa stated that "historically, America's recognition of Egypt's centrality in Middle East politics and developments lies at the heart of our partnership," adding that "for the last two decades, it [the U.S.-Egyptian relationship] has been the driving force behind regional peace, stability, and prosperity."[7] This assessment changed very little over the five years that followed. In March 2005, the current Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, asserted that "Egypt is a lighthouse for the Middle East," while adding that he was certain that the U.S. government fully appreciated everything that Egypt brought to the bilateral relationship.[8]

The U.S. commitment to Egypt has amounted in financial terms to approximately US$50 billion in military and economic assistance since the signing of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979—second only to the aid to Israel. Since that time, successive U.S. administrations have viewed Egypt as a key promoter of regional stability and moderation. David Welch, U.S. ambassador to Egypt between 2001 and 2005, in the weeks prior to the 9-11 attacks described Washington's ties to Cairo as "the centerpiece of our foreign policy in the Arab world."[9]

Bilateral ties have been both political and military. Soon after the Camp David accords, Egypt and the United States inaugurated the "Bright Star" joint military exercise, conducted every two years. Ten years later, Cairo played a key role in persuading Arab states to join the international coalition to liberate Kuwait.[10] During that conflict, Egypt acceded to U.S. requests to permit the transit of a U.S. nuclear carrier task force through the Suez Canal.[11] An Egyptian reinforced infantry division of 30,000 troops—the second-largest military contingent involved in the allied campaign—entered western Kuwait in February 1991 during operations to liberate that country.[12] As a reward for Egypt's cooperation with the Desert Shield military operations, in November 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law Section 592 of the Iraq Sanctions Act (Public Law 101-513), which provided for the cancellation of Egypt's $6.7 billion military debt. In the decade that followed, Egyptian consumption of American arms increased, and Egypt implemented a number of joint U.S.-Egyptian military partnerships, co-producing components for the Abrams (M1A1) tank and repairing aging U.S. military equipment.[13]

Mubarak publicly opposed the liberation of Iraq but nevertheless granted U.S. Central Command transit rights for troops and material through the Suez Canal,[14] a passage that became far more important after the Turkish parliament refused the Pentagon permission to open a northern front against Iraq. While the Suez Canal remains the quickest transit point for U.S. military assets bound for the Persian Gulf region, it also serves as a major international oil route,[15] thus guaranteeing Egypt's heightened strategic relevance into the twenty-first century.

These factors—along with the fact that with a population of over 75 million, one out of every three Arabs is Egyptian—have only heightened the Egyptian government's perception of itself as a pivotal state, indispensable, if not an "equal partner" with Washington in the Arab world.[16] Events, however, have undercut the basis for Egypt's self-perception, causing the gap between the Egyptian political elites' static policy and Washington to grow.

Is Egypt Relevant?

While U.S. policymakers have long viewed both Egypt and Turkey as linchpins of regional security, the emergence of an Israeli-Turkish entente heightened Egyptian fears that its leadership was under assault.[17] Ankara's efforts to assert its strategic relevance to the West have been troubling to the Arab world in general[18] and Egypt in particular. The Jordanian government's willingness to act independently of pan-Arab pressures and enter into a trilateral military partnership with Turkey and Israel only exacerbated Egyptian anxiety, leading one veteran Egyptian diplomat to label the 1990s a period of great "fragmentation" in the Arab world.[19] Egyptian columnist Abdel-Azim Hammad asserted that the Israeli-Turkish strategic partnership "jeopardizes peace and stability and contravenes Egypt's plans for a collective regional security scheme."[20] Indeed, while U.S. shipping might still rely on the Suez Canal, Ankara's agreement to allow the U.S. Air Force to use the Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey obviated any need for Egyptian overflight permission for U.S. pilots en route to the Persian Gulf. Egypt might still be important, but throughout the 1990s, it was no longer an indispensable strategic ally.

In the aftermath of 9-11, Egyptian support for the global war on terrorism has at best been lukewarm. While the Egyptian government did allow some intelligence sharing with U.S. agencies, it failed to send Egyptian troops to join the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan,[21] something the Turkish government did despite its own political squabbles with Washington. While official frustration with the degree of Egyptian support for the war on terrorism has been muted, disagreements arising from the U.S. invasion of Iraq have been much more difficult to contain.

For many years, the Mubarak regime was at the forefront of Arab countries seeking rapprochement with Iraq and a softening of United Nations sanctions.[22] A month after 9-11, Egyptian minister of foreign affairs Ahmed Maher told an audience at the American University of Cairo that the Egyptian government was "against any [U.S.] attack against any Arab country."[23] A year later, as preparations for war were underway, Mubarak told students in Alexandria, "If you strike Iraq and kill the people of Iraq while Palestinians are being killed by Israel … not one Arab leader will be able to control the angry outbursts of the masses."[24] Shortly before the fall of Baghdad unleashed a burst of euphoria in the Iraqi street, Mubarak warned that the war in Iraq would produce 100 bin Ladens.[25]

As the Iraq campaign progressed, the Egyptian political elite remained firm in their conviction that their pivotal role remained unscathed. Abdel Moneim Sa'id 'Aly, head of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, for example, said, "I don't think that Bahrain and Qatar can take the place of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. America will realize that in major crises it needs Saudi Arabia and Egypt."[26] Many Egyptian policymakers and analysts urged Cairo to take a dominant role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction.[27] Mubarak's decision to host the November 2004 Sharm el-Sheikh summit of foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors was a tacit admission that, having failed to prevent the United States from going to war, his best chance of influencing events was by positioning Egypt to be part of the solution.[28]

Just as Egypt flirted with obstructionism in regard to U.S. efforts to address the regional threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the slow erosion of United Nations sanctions, throughout the 1990s, Mubarak has also sought to bolster Egypt's regional importance at the expense of Arab-Israeli peace. If it could not be at the center of the peace process, then it would undermine it. In 1994 and 1995, Cairo used international forums and regional meetings to isolate and weaken Israel.[29] Having been excluded from the process leading to the 1994 establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan, Mubarak criticized the agreement.[30] Rather than use Egyptian offices to make a positive contribution to peace elsewhere, Mubarak's pressure contributed to the scuttling of Moroccan and Qatari plans to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel in the mid-1990s.[31]

While taking a mildly rejectionist line toward Arab-Israeli rapprochement, the Egyptian government has sought to position itself as the mediator for disputes within the Arab and Muslim world. In 1998, Mubarak personally shuttled between Damascus and Ankara to defuse the threat of military confrontation over Syrian backing for the Kurdistan Worker's Party (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan, or PKK).[32] Then-Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa likewise worked to ease tension between Algeria and Morocco and also between Syria and the Palestinian Authority. However, the Egyptian government has taken an unhelpful stance with regard to Syrian occupation of Lebanon, failing even to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. During a surprise visit to Damascus in September 2004, Mubarak and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad reportedly adopted a joint stance rejecting any outside interference in matters of Lebanese sovereignty and internal affairs while linking any progress on the matter to Israeli withdrawal from all Syrian and Lebanese territory.[33] By trying to broaden the discussion of Lebanese sovereignty to other Arab territories held by Israel, Egypt's stance was pan-Arab in both scope and tone. The Egyptian government's push for annual Arab summit meetings was Cairo's attempt to cement its leadership position.[34]

Yet rather than strengthen its position as the United States' indispensable ally, Mubarak's attempt to revive pan-Arabism antagonized Washington. Former assistant secretary of state Martin Indyk, for example, observed that Cairo tended to reinforce Arafat's stubborn tendencies, thereby obstructing progress in talks with Israel.[35] As in the Taba meeting in the final days of the Clinton presidency, or in the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in June 2003, the Egyptian government only worked to advance the peace process when it could host summits and show itself at the center of the process.

The pattern continues. In the aftermath of Iraq's liberation, Mubarak has redoubled his efforts to position Egypt as the key to regional settlement by trying to link resolution of the Iraqi insurgency to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the end of an April 2004 summit with President Bush in Crawford, Texas, Mubarak declared, "Egypt has pioneered the path of peace in the region for over twenty-five years and will continue to assume its responsibilities for peace today."[36]

Has Egypt's strategy worked? The peace process is again active. At first glance, Cairo has regained some relevance by assuming a more constructive role in the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit visited Israel in late 2004, and Mubarak's uncharacteristic remark in December 2004 that if the Palestinians "can't achieve progress in the time of the current prime minister [Ariel Sharon], it will be difficult to make any progress in peace," raised hopes that Cairo would no longer encourage Palestinian intransigence. Western diplomats have welcomed Egypt's subsequent engagement with both Israel and Palestinian leaders.[37]

But recent Egyptian moves may have less to do with a sincere desire for peace than for averting outcomes harmful to Egyptian interests, such as the emergence of a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza controlled by Hamas or Islamic Jihad in the political and security vacuum following disengagement.[38] Egypt's short-term cooperation with Israel over post-Gaza withdrawal security may have less to do with Egyptian altruism and more to do with Cairo's fear of either political turmoil in Gaza or the empowerment of Islamists there.[39]

Is Egypt out of Step with the New Middle East?

While the Egyptian government has reversed course from the obstructionism of the 1990s, a shifting milieu has prevented Cairo from assuming the domineering position it seeks. Egypt's lofty regional ambitions stand quite in contrast to the sad reality of its economic circumstances. Although Egypt, with the largest population of any Arab country, ranked only behind Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in gross domestic product in 2003, it ranks near the bottom of the Arab League states in terms of its per capita income.[40] Since the brief period of economic growth in the middle and late-1990s, regional challenges compounded by uncertainty in the government's economic management have undermined business and consumer confidence and slowed growth.[41] Economic growth has fallen to an average of just 2.2 percent in 2002-3 and 2003-4.[42] While official figures placed Egyptian unemployment at 9.9 percent in 2002-3, the true figure is probably double that.[43] Additionally, Egypt has possessed an external trade deficit, almost without interruption, for more than half a century.[44] Cairo may have ambitions of regional political domination, but its economy undermines such pretensions.

The tension between ambition and reality contributes to the tense relationship between Mubarak's regime and an increasingly cynical Egyptian public. At a time when Washington feared Cairo's vulnerability to Islamist insurgency, the White House was willing to forgive Mubarak's domestic oppression. But with both the Jama'at al-Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad deflated, at least since the apex of the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. diplomats need not treat their Egyptian counterparts with kid gloves. With the establishment of relations between Israel and Jordan, the formalization of the Palestinian Authority, and the general amelioration of Arab rejectionism elsewhere, a number of different Arab officials are willing to talk directly to their Israeli counterparts. As a result, Egypt has become less essential to U.S. diplomacy. Finally, whereas before the 1990s, Egypt and, perhaps to some extent Oman, were the only Arab military partners upon which the United States could depend in the Cold War's uncertainty, today the Cold War is over, and U.S. Central Command has at its disposal naval bases in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, a recently completed base in Qatar, and perhaps a dozen new installations in Iraq. Even Egypt's geographical importance has been marginalized by shifting threats and a new U.S. base in Djibouti from which is accessible all of southern Arabia, the Sudan, and the Horn of Africa.

With Washington less reliant on Mubarak for its diplomacy, the Cold War over, and subsequent fears of an Islamist takeover receded, the U.S. government has much more maneuverability to press for internal reform and the long-term stability which representative government can bring. Mubarak had a rude awakening in 2002 after Egyptian security forces imprisoned dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen and civil society advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Perhaps in the past, Washington would have been content to express diplomatic displeasure but not to withhold carrots or wield sticks. But, in a letter to Mubarak, Bush threatened to stop new aid to Egypt.[45] While he did not mention the nearly $2 billion in U.S. assistance Egypt receives annually, the very precedent of withholding aid carried with it an implied threat. U.S. pressure clearly paid off. Several months later, Egyptian authorities released Ibrahim and dropped all charges against him.[46]

If Egyptian policymakers thought the Ibrahim incident was a one-time occurrence, perhaps brought to the fore only by Ibrahim's U.S. citizenship, they were wrong. In the aftermath of 9-11, the Bush administration calculated that the dangers of alienation of the Arab street outweighed the benefits of nurturing friendly dictatorships. In December 2002, the State Department unveiled its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) that emphasized civil society, economic reforms, political participation, and development as part of a broader U.S. public diplomacy effort in the Middle East.[47]

The Egyptian government was dismissive of the program. Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher questioned the timing of the initiative and expressed bewilderment that Washington would prioritize MEPI over resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an entanglement over which Cairo could wield its influence and which did not threaten the interests of the Egyptian autocracy.[48]

Was Washington, through its promotion of democracy, undermining the foundations of Mubarak's legitimacy and weakening Egypt's regional standing? Pro-government journalists among Al-Ahram Weekly's staff leveled such charges at a 2003 roundtable with the U.S. ambassador. In response to a record of U.S. statements on democratization in the past, as well as denials from both countries that their relationship was embroiled in crisis, Al-Ahram Weekly staff member, Gamal Essam el-Din alleged, "You said you are not interfering, but by making these statements you are exerting some kind of psychological pressure on the people here, and they think this is part of the crisis in the relationship."[49]

Ambassador Welch retorted,

Maybe you find that particularly uncomfortable if it [these statements on democracy] comes from foreign political leaders … sometimes those views, even if they are meant to be positive and encouraging, may get dismissed because of where they came from. If you interpret that as psychological pressure, I'm sorry, but your interpretation is not our intention. Our intention is to encourage, and yes, to promote change.[50]

Egyptian policymakers had been turning a deaf ear to hints of growing White House displeasure with Mubarak. In November 2003, Bush spoke about freedom and democracy after Iraq to the National Endowment for Democracy. He called on Egypt to play a leadership role in the democratization of the region.[51] The speech signaled a new reality. While the Egyptian government sought to maneuver itself into a position of predominance using 1980s-style Realpolitik, the Middle East had moved on.

The disconnect between U.S. and Egyptian goals has only widened since. The democratic wave of early 2005 in Ukraine, Iraq, and Lebanon has alarmed the Egyptian elite. Influencing diplomacy abroad is one thing, but enacting internal reform quite another. The quasi-official Egyptian media made no secret of Cairo's disdain for democratization in Iraq and, by implication, elsewhere. Al-Ahram, for example, suggested that elections would only "exacerbate the sectarian and ethnic fissures that are already threatening to tear Iraq apart."[52] Two weeks later, its editors suggested that empowerment of Iraqi Shi'ites and Kurds might lead "the disgruntled Sunnis of Iraq [to] step up their resistance to the new status quo in Iraq."[53]

The drive to democratize has heightened awareness of Egypt's political stagnation, at home and abroad. Politically, Cairo is frozen in time by its authoritarian regime. Egyptian officials and opinion leaders, many dependent upon the patronage of Mubarak, have responded to Bush's democracy initiatives as if the very foundations of their country's legitimacy were under assault. When an early proposal for the Broader Middle East and North Africa democracy initiative was leaked to the press prior to the June 2004 Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Georgia, Mubarak said he was "furious" about being dictated to by others.[54]

Expression of the Mubarak regime's pique has not been a one-time occurrence. In March 2005, Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit slammed a Bush speech extolling democratizing trends in the Middle East, insisting that for the "so-called democratic endeavor, the pace will be set by Egypt and the Egyptian people and only the Egyptian people. The Egyptian people will not accept what we call trusteeship."[55] Indicating the growing gulf in U.S.-Egyptian relations was that fact that Aboul Gheit's comments were not too different from those expressed by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah himself during the large March 8 pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut. Responding to Bush's dual calls for democratic reform and the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions binding on Syria, Nasrallah asked tauntingly, "Isn't this Western democracy? The majority is rejecting Resolution 1559," while adding, "I want to tell Americans, do not interfere in our internal affairs. Let your ambassador relax in his embassy and leave us alone."[56]

Demonstrating Egypt's inflated sense of its own indispensability, Aboul Gheit added that "the need for Egypt to be a friend of the United States is something I'm sure people in Washington value very much."[57] Increasingly, though, he is wrong. The State Department will seldom speak ill of any relationship, but the Congress has been less sanguine. Senator Mitch McConnell, a senior member of the Senate Republican leadership and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operation, expressed his deep frustration with Egypt in an April 2004 editorial in The Washington Post, declaring that "it is past time President Mubarak demonstrated the courage and commitment to lead Egypt into a new era of freedom and prosperity. To do anything less will only strengthen the hands of extremists."[58]

There is little reason for optimism for real political reform. A report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Democracy and Rule of Law Project concluded that, despite Mubarak's rhetoric, the Egyptian government continues to consolidate its power. Among the obstacles cited by its author, Amr Hamzawy, were the regime's undemocratic nature and the structural weakness and laws obstructing the functioning of opposition parties and movements.[59]

Rather than prepare for a democratic future, Mubarak appears to be grooming his son Gamal for power.[60] Mubarak's arrest of opposition leader Ayman Nour in January 2005 only reinforced doubts. Many commentators saw it as a preemptive strike against political dissent.[61] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to cancel an expected February 2005 visit to Egypt was attributed to a lack of reform initiatives in that country, a shortcoming highlighted by Nour's imprisonment.[62]

In the immediate wake of Rice's cancellation, Mubarak proposed unprecedented changes to Egypt's electoral laws, "giving the chance for political parties to run for the presidential elections and providing guarantees that allow more than one candidate for the people to choose among them with their own will."[63] While Nour was eventually freed on bail, it is unclear whether Mubarak's call for a constitutional amendment permitting multi-candidate presidential elections arose out of a "full conviction of the need to consolidate efforts for more freedom and democracy,"[64] as he claimed, and whether Mubarak's newfound democratic conviction will overcome his desire to stay in power. As long as the ruling National Democratic Party retains a virtual monopoly on the exercise of both executive and legislative powers, the chance for a democratic breakthrough remains slim.


For more than two decades, U.S. policymakers have viewed Egypt as an invaluable ally in Washington's effort to ensure regional stability and moderation. Yet, with faithfulness to Cairo's historical mission as the heart and soul of the Arab world guiding its behavior for the past half-century, Egypt has consistently sought to quash any challenge to its role as the Arab world's paramount broker of moderation and stability. To Cairo's decisionmakers, such goals take a back seat to preventing the emergence of any new order—including democratization—that Egypt cannot dominate. As long as democracy promotion remains a major component of U.S. policy, diplomatic conflagrations between Cairo and Washington are likely to become not the exception, but the rule. A change at the top will likely not soothe relations. Democratic reforms notwithstanding, any successor to Mubarak is unlikely to shift Egyptian national priorities away from its claim to be the regional power broker. To do so would betray the attitude of Egyptian exceptionalism that has driven successive leaders to perpetuate a sometimes deleterious sense of national glory.

In March 2000, then-Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa stated that differences between the United States and Egypt on certain issues are to be expected. "After all, America is a global power with international interests," he said. "Egypt, meanwhile, is a regional power whose interests are closely linked to the heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds, the African continent, and the Mediterranean. So, it is only normal that our perspectives on certain issues be different."[65]

Moussa's words are just as true today as they were five years ago when they were uttered. Egyptian and U.S. national interests may overlap, but they need not be identical to enable a fruitful partnership to exist. Yet, the critical question now is whether their differences have grown to such a degree that they overrule the possibility of a mutually-beneficial U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship continuing into the future.

Samuel J. Spector is a research analyst at the Long-Term Strategy Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[1] Martin Kramer, "Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity," Daedalus, Summer 1993, pp. 171-206; Israel Gershoni and James P. Jankowski, Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 3-20.
[2] Elie Podeh, The Quest for Hegemony in the Arab World: The Struggle over the Baghdad Pact, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), p. 31.
[3] Quoted in William L. Cleveland, The Making of an Arab Nationalist: Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati' al-Husri (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 127.
[4] Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 18. For an Egyptian study of their identity, see Jamal ad-Din Mahmud Hamdan, Shakhsiyat Misr: Dirasah fi 'abqariyat al-makan (Cairo: Maktabat an-Nahdah al-Misriyah, 1970), pp. 471-514.
[5] Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Philosophy of the Revolution (Buffalo: Smith, Keynes and Marshall, 1959), p. 78.
[6] Podeh, The Quest for Hegemony, p. 196.
[7] Amr Moussa, "The Egyptian-American Partnership: An Investment in the Future Stability and Prosperity of the Middle East," inauguration of the Council on Egyptian-American Relations, Washington, D.C., Mar. 26, 2000.
[8] The Washington Post, Mar. 10, 2005.
[9] Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Aug. 16-22, 2001.
[10] Abdel Moneim Said Aly and Robert H. Pelletreau, "U.S.-Egyptian Relations," Middle East Policy, June 2001, p. 49.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Clyde R. Mark, "Egypt-United States Relations," Congressional Research Service (IB93087), Apr. 2, 2003, p. 10.
[13] Ibid., pp. 10-1.
[14] The Washington Post, Apr. 1, 2003.
[15] Mohamed Kadry Said, "Potential Egyptian Contribution to a Security Framework in the Gulf," Middle East Policy, Fall 2004, p. 66.
[16] Al-Ahram Weekly, June 24-30, 1999.
[17] Alan Makovsky, "Turkish-Israeli Cooperation, the Peace Process, and the Region," Policywatch, no. 195, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Apr. 26, 1996.
[18] Michel Naufal, ed., Al-'Arab wa al-Atrak fi'-l-'Alam al-Mutahayir (Beirut: Markaz ad-Dirasat as-Strategiya wa Bahooth wa at-Towthiq, 1993), p. 9.
[19] Salah Bassiouni, "Misr wa't-Turkiya: Hisabat Siyasiya wa Aqa'iya," Auraq ash-Sharq al-Awsat (Cairo), Nov. 1998-Mar. 1999, p. 54.
[20] Abdel-Azim Hammad, "Egypt and Turkey Restore Equilibrium," Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 17-23, 1998.
[21] Al-Ahram Weekly, Oct. 11-17, 2001.
[22] Steven A. Cook, "Egypt—Still America's Partner?" Middle East Quarterly, June 2000, pp. 3-13.
[23] Al-Ahram Weekly, Oct. 11-17, 2001.
[24] The Times (London), Aug. 28, 2002.
[25] The Washington Post, Apr. 1, 2003.
[26] Financial Times (London), Oct. 22, 2003.
[27] Said, "Potential Egyptian Contribution to a Security Framework in the Gulf," p. 70.
[28] The New York Times, Nov. 23, 2004.
[29] Gerald Steinberg, "Cairo's Anti-Israel Campaign," The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 25, 1994.
[30] The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 25, 1994.
[31] The Jerusalem Report, Sept. 24, 2001.
[32] Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 3-9, 1998.
[33] The Daily Star (Beirut), Sept. 16, 2004.
[34] Al-Ahram Weekly, Feb. 24-Mar. 1, 2000.
[35] Martin Indyk, "Back to the Bazaar," Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2002, pp. 75-88.
[36] White House, news release, Crawford, Texas, Apr. 12, 2004.
[37] Ben Fishman, "Analyzing the Thaw in Egyptian-Israeli Relations," Policy Watch, no. 931, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dec. 20, 2004.
[38] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), June 6, 2004.
[39] Ibid.
[40] "Egypt: Country Profile 2004," The Economist Intelligence Unit (London: The Economist Group, 2004), in "Comparative Economic Indicators, 2003," bar charts, "Gross Domestic Product (US$ bn)" and "Gross Domestic Product per Head (US$ '000)," front matter.
[41] Ibid., p. 35.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid., p. 37.
[44] Ibid., p. 51.
[45] The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2002.
[46] Ibid., Mar. 19, 2003.
[47] "Middle East Partnership Initiative: Building Hope for the Years Ahead," U.S. Department of State, Dec. 12, 2002.
[48] Edward S. Walker, "Gloomy Mood in Egypt and Saudi Arabia: Fear that America's Standing in the Region May Not Survive Current U.S. Policies toward Iraq, Terrorism, and the Peace Process," Middle East Institute Policy Brief, Dec. 12-19, 2002.
[49] Al-Ahram Weekly, Dec. 18-24, 2003.
[50] Ibid.
[51] Remarks at the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, United States Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6, 2003.
[52] Al-Ahram Weekly, Feb. 3-9, 2005.
[53] Ibid., Feb. 17-23, 2005.
[54] The New York Times, June 6, 2004.
[55] The Washington Post, Mar. 10, 2005.
[56] Ibid; CNN.com, Mar. 8, 2005.
[57] The Washington Post, Mar. 10, 2005.
[58] Mitch McConnell, "… Needs a U.S. Push," The Washington Post, Apr. 7, 2004.
[59] Amr Hamzawy, "The Continued Cost of Political Stagnation in Egypt," Policy Outlook, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Feb. 2005, p. 1.
[60] Daniel Sobelman, "Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt?" Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2001, pp. 31-40.
[61] The Washington Post, Mar. 15, 2005.
[62] Ibid., Feb. 27, 2005.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Ibid.
[65] Moussa, "The Egyptian-American Partnership."