Global Politics

Egypt's new president creates foreign policy dilemma for President Obama

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Morsi's affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and its stance on foreign policy issues stand directly in conflict with U.S. goals. (Photo by Jonathan Rashad via Wikimedia Commons.)

The election of Egypt’s first democratically elected president has serious implications for longstanding U.S. policy and may pose a daunting dilemma for President Obama.
 
Mohamed Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a strict Islamist party set on bringing sweeping religious changes to the embattled country. In his victory speech, he called for national unity, saying he’ll be the president for all Egyptians and will respect all international treatments and accords.
 
He also tried to reassure both Christians and women they had nothing to fear from an Islamist president. In an effort to keep his word, his spokesman has told the Guardian that Morsi's first appointments as president-elect of Egypt will be a woman and a Christian.
 
The election results have put Obama in a tricky position as a supporter of Morsi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and as a critic of America’s longtime ally, the Egyptian military.
 
In a White House statement issued Monday, the Obama administration welcomed the results and called for unity with Egypt and its leader, who does not share many of the same views or goals of the U.S.
 
Harvard Professor of International Politics Nicholas Burns was a U.S. Ambassador and served as the former under secretary of state for political affairs under former President Bill Clinton. Burns said there are real interests at stake in Egypt that the Obama administration must address.
 
One such interest is the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which Burns called the “fundamental bedrock of American policy in the Middle East.”
 
There’s also the fact that under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt supported blocking the Iranian government and has been a supporter in countering terrorism.
 
“So, what the administration has to calculate is whether or not it believes that this new government led by Mohammed Morsi will, in effect, continue those policies on Iran, on terrorism, and especially on Israel that have been so important to the United States,” Burns said.
 
He speculated that if the administration believes that Egypt’s new government will not continue these policies, it might move toward implicit support for the military government.
 
Despite his victory, Morsi’s party will not have absolute power as a result of the election. The military still holds the strongest influence in Egypt and will not easily cede control of the country to its rival. A power struggle is inevitable.
 
In fact, just two weeks before their promised date to hand over power, the military shut down the democratically elected and Islamist-led Parliament and reinstituted martial law by allowing soldiers to arrest civilians.
 
The generals then took over the Parliament’s powers to make laws and set budgets and decreed an interim Constitution stripping the incoming president of most of his powers.
 
The United States has had a 30-year relationship with the Egyptian military as its largest financial supporter.
 
“And I think, even more importantly, we now have a generation or two of Egyptian military leaders who have attended American staff colleges, who’ve done military training in the United States, and who have close personal relations with senior American military officers,” Burns said.
 
He noted that although the influence is not universal, there is still a great deal of American influence from the Pentagon.
 
Burns said there’s a huge risk if the U.S. is seen as not fully supporting democracy by backing the military.
 
“That’s going to have a major and negative impact on the United States throughout the Arab world and I think, among many in the developing world, who question whether the United States will in fact support democracy in a place where we’ve traditionally had a relationship with authoritarian rulers,” Burns said.
 
The Obama Administration has made it clear that it supports democracy in the Arab world, but Burns said the situation is similar to when the Bush Administration effectively rejected the elections that brought Hamas to power.
 
“It caused a major problem for us because Arabs throughout the Arab world said ‘Well, you say one thing but you do another,” Burns said.
 
“Well now, here’s the time when we’re going to be tested. Will we support it or not?”
 
For the time being, Obama has decided to support the democratic result, and in the White House statement, the administration said it looked forward to Egypt’s transition to a democratically elected government.

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