Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Decline of American Influence

by Steven A. Cook
July 16, 2012

U.S. President Barack Obama is given a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza while in Cairo (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama is given a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza while in Cairo (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters).

Cairo, Egypt

In light of Secretary Clinton’s visit to Egypt over the last few days, I thought you might be interested in my recent piece from the Cairo Review. The full article can be found here.

When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi declared it his “duty” to free Omar Abdel Rahman—the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six and injured one thousand—it was not a very auspicious beginning for relations between the United States and the ‘new’ Egypt. The U.S. Congress, particularly the delegation from the New York City area, expressed outrage.

Egypt watchers and Middle East analysts sought to put the new president’s words in context. Morsi is weak. He needs to secure his base and play to public sentiment while he consolidates his power. He does not really intend to pursue Abdel Rahman’s release from U.S. federal prison. Washington would be better served to disregard what was clearly a calculated political move. There are more pressing issues in the U.S.-Egypt relationship than a sick and aging militant.

This sober analysis is entirely accurate, but it sidesteps the central change that has occurred in Egypt since the revolution. Hosni Mubarak could largely ignore public opinion because Egyptian citizens did not have a mechanism for holding their leaders accountable. Now they do. Current and future leaders who disregard public sentiment will do so at their own risk.

The consequence for the United States is likely to be a greatly changed relationship with Egypt. The strategic alignment and the partnership in pursuing Arab-Israeli peace are at best going to get more difficult to manage. At worst, this cooperation will come to an end altogether.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Brilliant analysis. US-Egypt relations will change and most probably will not remain at the same level as before.

    An interesting comparison can be made with the recently democratic Pakistan and its relations with the US. Before the current democratic set-up, Pakistan, under General Musharraf, was doing everything which could be done without jeopardizing the interests of Pakistani military. People of Pakistan didn’t matter. Their low opinion of US actions in the region didn’t count. These opinions were only used to thrawt any demands of the US for liberalization and democratization.

    Now it is different. Despite having a pro-US government in Pakistan, Americans are having trouble getting things done their way. Why? Because even the pro-US government cannot ignore people. It has to appear to be on the side of the people of Pakistan.

    How the US should then deal with democratic Muslim countries? First, the US should understand that the public opinion in these countries is important and not try to force Muslim leaders to go against their people wishes. It will only backfire.

    Secondly, Americans should try to understand why other people are against their policies, instead of just dismissing them as anti-Americanism. Just as Americans are not anti-Egyptian when they criticize Egyptian government policies, similarly Egyptians are not anti-American when they criticize American policies.

  • Posted by Jose Angel Flores

    The United States has always played certain balances in its relations with Egypt and other countries in the region. I don’t see American influence dwindling, but rather the countries growing in terms of democracy and economy, becoming more assertive precisely because those governments have more legitimacy in front of their citizens.

    On the other hand, Russia, Iran and Turkey have become almost irrelevant in the face of ongoing revolts in Syria and other countries. Totalitarian regimes such as Egypt’s Mubarak gave grounds for islamist groups to resort to violence and even terrorism, but democracy doesn’t, it invites them to become political parties, politicians, congressmen, governors, etc.

    I actually think American influence will last a lot longer while Russia and Iran’s will come to an end.

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