This Opinion first appeared in Politico on March 1, 2012
As a result of foreign policy miscalculations, the United States may lose its historical leadership in the Middle East. While the unfolding tragedy in Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the war on terrorists absorb U.S. attention and resources, the unnecessary decline of U.S.-Egyptian relations could do the most damage to our national interests. Just as Britain’s domination of the region ended on the banks of the Suez Canal in 1956, Washington now appears determined to end our 30 years of regional dominance in a confrontation with the Egyptian people.
U.S. pre-eminence in the region since the 1970s was built on the strategic cooperation between Washington and Cairo. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter strove to create this relationship, for they realized that the preceding 20 years of predominant Soviet influence in the region was due to the Egyptian-Soviet partnership.
Egypt was and remains the dominant force in the Middle East. Since World War II, the balance of power in the region has shifted twice. First in the 1950s, when Egypt led the region into a de facto alliance with the Soviet Union. Then, in the 1970s, when Anwar Sadat decided Egypt’s interests were better served by allying with the U.S.
In the 1950s, the Middle East underwent a political transformation with Arab nationalism’s emergence as the dominant political philosophy — radically changing the way Arabs perceived themselves. The West’s misunderstanding and mishandling of this change ended Britain’s moment and ushered in the Soviet era.
Now the region is undergoing a similar transformation. Sclerotic Arab nationalist regimes are being supplanted by governments with a more populist Islamic orientation. Egypt is at the forefront of this shift. Other Arab states are watching with concern because they know that how Egypt weathers this transformation will significantly affect the region.
Egypt, while the leader in the Arab world, is also unique. Across the Arab world, if one asks, “Who are you?” the majority answers, “I am a Muslim.” In Egypt, however, the majority answers: “I am an Egyptian.”
As a consequence, the rise of Islamic political forces in Egypt is tempered by a parallel rise in Egyptian nationalism. This dual Islamic and Egyptian identity presents both opportunities and challenges for U.S. policymakers.
The crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations over the nongovernmental organization issue — including calls from some in Congress and the media to halt military assistance — creates a direct and unnecessary clash with this rising tide of Egyptian nationalism. Though Cairo eased tensions Thursday by allowing the seven detained U.S. citizens to leave, the problem remains unresolved.
Parallels with the 1950s are worrying. Attempts to blame an individual for the problem — President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and Minister Fayza Abul Naga today — can lead to a serious misreading of the underlying cause. These people reflect national feelings — they are not creating them.
Consider the Egyptian perspective. Under Egyptian law, foreign and domestic NGOs, including those with foreign funding, must be registered. The NGOs in question were not, and therefore operating illegally. The situation was worsened by the Obama administration’s post-revolution decision to increase exponentially the funding for these NGOs — though they were operating without Cairo’s approval and in violation of Egyptian law.
This situation was complicated when several employees of one U.S. NGO quit. One went on Egyptian television and accused that NGO of spying, discriminating against Muslims and violating other laws. Egyptian judges decided to prosecute these groups after months of investigation — a decision supported by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians.
U.S. pressure on Cairo, particularly the military leadership, to abrogate the legal proceedings and make an exception for Americans is widely seen in Egypt as proof that Washington is not truly interested in the rule of law and must have another agenda — as the Egyptian judges have alleged.
Cutting off military assistance could call into question the entire U.S.-Egyptian relationship and severely damage the national security interests of both countries for decades. In return for U.S. aid, Egypt waives its laws in allowing passage of U.S. Navy ships through the Suez Canal, military use of its facilities and the annual transit of many thousands of U.S. military aircraft. This loss to our military would be huge in terms of cost and efficiency for U.S. military operations in Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa.
Washington now has a choice. Either we find a way to work with the Islamists and nationalists or continue along the path of confrontation — which is likely to lead to an end of U.S. predominance in the Middle East.