Egypt's Shifting Geopolitical Policies: A Consequence of Democracy
Apr 30, 2011

Egypt's Shifting Geopolitical Policies: A Consequence of Democracy

The recent democratization of Egypt has resulted in a series of distinct policy changes with regards to Israel, Palestine and Iran. These changes ultimately represent a shift in Egyptian policy towards the popular opinion of many Egyptians that are becoming relevant for the first time as Egypt moves towards democracy yet present challenges to current US foreign policy.

There have been three major geopolitical policy shifts since the revolution. Firstly, Egypt has negotiated a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian factions (ignoring Palestinians living in Israel). Secondly, Egypt has pledged to open the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip thus effectively ending the near complete blockade of Gaza. Thirdly, Egypt has pledge to normalize relations with Iran and resume diplomacy. Allowing an Iranian warship through the Suez canal shortly after the revolution was a precursor to this shift. With these policy changes in mind, let us consider the democratic situation in Egypt and elsewhere.

United States foreign policy has always had a significant tension when it comes to supporting democracy. On the one hand, the US is a democratic nation and ostensibly aims to support the propagation of stable democracies. On the other hand, the US as a series of geopolitical interests that if one believes should be maintained are often perceived to be most effectively accomplished through heavily western backed dictatorships. When there is a conflict between the people of a country and US foreign policy (such as not supporting military influence which a dictatorship might support), history has demonstrated in the Middle East, Asia and South America that the US is more than willing to chose various form of autocracy over democracy in the name of supporting its geopolitical interests.

Egypt's regime is one such example of a multi-decade heavily US backed military dictatorship. With its revolution and first steps to democracy, questions as to the opinions of it people are surfacing for perhaps the first time. The US is right to be worried, for public opinion quite differs from claimed US geopolitical interests. For example, only 6% of Egyptians believe it would be a negative outcome for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons with 97% thinking they have a right to pursue them. Some 70% of Egyptians empathize with both Hamas and Fatah with only 10% empathizing with neither. Perhaps most telling is that among Arabs 88% and 77% view Israel and the US respectively as the most dangerous country in the region with a mere 10% for Iran despite the sunni/shia divide. On a positive for Israel, only 12% are opposed to the idea of peace between Israel and Palestine. These Brookings Institute figures demonstrate pretty clearly that there is a pretty clear divide between US interests and Egyptian public opinion.

All three of the policy shifts clearly represent a convergence of Egyptian policy with Egyptian public opinion but against US policy. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have supported a policy of isolating Hamas and heavily supporting and building up Fatah in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Outside of this political isolation, the Hamas stronghold in Gaza strip has also been physically isolated with enormous restrictions on bilateral trade and a small trickle of humanitarian supplies let through for the ostensible purpose of preventing weapons from reaching Hamas. The US and Israel do not have diplomatic relations with Iran and the US works hard to encourage multilateral sanctions and other forms of diplomatic and economic isolation for Iran. Hence all three policy shifts work against US foreign policy and previous Egyptian doctrine but have now moved closer to alignment with Egyptian public opinion. That this is the case now is not surprising considering that Egyptian policy makers are now aware of the imminent elections and need to appeal to public opinion. Ironically, these changes do actually underline the US position that democracy can be a conflict with geopolitical interests which has led to the suppression of democracy in favor of autocracy for so long.

Personally, I support all three policy changes. The best approach with regards to Iran is a normalization of relations, rapprochement and encouraging Iran to firmly enter the global community in a way that builds disincentives to violence through economic, political and diplomatic integration. It is time for Egypt - and indeed the US and Israel - to join the rest of the world in doing this. As for Israel/Palestine, any peace deal in Israel and Palestine that is going to be meaningful is going to necessarily have to include as wide a definition of Palestinian as possible. While the so called "Right of Return" to Palestinians in Israel is looking increasingly less likely to come out of any peace deal, including both Hamas and Fatah is essential. Some will argue for this in the long run but appeal to a stepping stone argument of peace in the West Bank first and then dealing with Hamas and Gaza latter. I find this divide and conquer strategy to be ineffective and to extend the Israel/US vs Palestine negotiating asymmetry leading to a potentially less equitable solution for various groups of Palestinians. Regardless, there should be firm agreement on the long term prospects of needing to achieve peace with Hamas and the Gaza strip as well that cannot be ignored.

Opening the border into Gaza is absolutely necessary if one aims to alleviate the internationally recognized horrific humanitarian crisis that exists in that region. It has been made very clear that the status quo is insufficient at alleviating this crisis. Again, there should be long term agreement that this cannot and must not be allowed to go on at some length. The disagreement is often over the short term timing where Hamas is presently considered too high a security threat to allow the border open. I believe these threats are exaggerated and moreover there is nothing on the horizon to indicate a shift from the status quo where the borders can be opened to alleviate the crisis. Given that, opening them now is imperative to allow an unrestricted free flow of humanitarian aid as well as the bilateral trade and travel options which can lift the economic crisis to a point where dependency on Hamas will be lifted and actually help the security problems.

Regardless of my own opinions on these policies, the larger shift remains clear. As Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries democratize and achieve independent self determination from previous western backing, we cannot and should not expect the policies that come out of these states to always be in the best interests of the current foreign policy goals of the west. I believe, however, that this can be used to guide is on a more appropriate set of foreign policies as opposed to being viewed as a strictly negative thing and thus far the Egyptian shift has been three for three in the right direction. 

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