Taking sides in Egypt: 3 Questions with Ambassador Nicholas Burns


Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the king's Riyadh Palace April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Chip Somodevilla

Saudi Arabia, the United States and the rest of the Middle East are all in some way entangled and invested in Egypt's bloody struggle, with military rulers on one side and the opposition, led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, on the other.

Last week, Saudi Arabia quickly emerged as the military's heaviest backer, offering billions in aid while also supporting the violent crackdown that reportedly killed more than 1,000 people.

It's a blatant move against the West that could undercut United States foreign policy in beleaguered Egypt.

To understand how this recent development is reshaping the sphere of influence in the region, we spoke with GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist, and former US diplomat, Nicholas Burns:

What are Saudi Arabia's interests in Egypt, what are America's interests, and how are they at conflict?

The US and Saudi Arabia have long supported a strong, moderate Egypt as the keystone state of the Arab world and Middle East. Both have worked with Egypt since (former President Anwar) Sadat’s time more than 30 years ago to combat terrorism in the Middle East and to contain Iran’s aim to expand its power in the region. The US, of course, has also placed great value on the Camp David Accords that Jimmy Carter mediated to produce a historic peace between Egypt and Israel. This has been the most important US interest and a bedrock of our modern Middle East policy.

Where the Saudis and Americans diverge is on the priority the US places on promoting democracy in Egypt. Since the start of the Arab revolutions, the US has struggled to balance our contrasting and conflicting interests in supporting, on the one hand, human rights and civil freedoms versus, on the other hand, our national security interest in continuing a close, military relationship with Egypt.

This is the difficult, wrenching decision the US now faces — do we break with the Egyptian military over its excessive use of force during the last week or continue to work with them? Which way should we lean? So far, the Obama team has been leaning toward maintaining ties with the military. But, I don’t discount the possibility of a US break with the generals should they not respond to US advice. This is a critical juncture in the US-Egypt relationship.

It appears the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have outbid the United States for influence with Egypt's ruling military. How will this unusually public confrontation affect the US-Saudi Arabia relationship?

The Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has produced a significant disagreement between the US and Saudi Arabia. President Obama is right, in my view, to try to convince Egypt’s generals to pursue a less violent, more nuanced and smarter long-term policy.

Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Israel are counseling a more hardline, less sophisticated and ultimately, riskier strategy. This difference has been made clear by Saudi officials publicly — a most unfortunate development and a major tactical error by the Saudis.

When the press begins to trumpet that US strategy in Egypt is being willfully undercut by the Saudis and Israelis, it weakens US policy and credibility. This open disagreement is not good for any of the countries involved. Still, I don’t expect it to lead to a fundamental break in the US-Saudi relationship. We will remain partners based on our joint interest in the free flow of oil and gas to Europe and Asia and by our mutual aim to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.  

What do the diplomatic and economic issues now at play between Saudi Arabia, the US and Egypt say about the larger geopolitical picture in the Middle East?

The conventional wisdom in the press and Twittersphere is that the US is losing influence in Egypt and the Middle East. We are surely less influential than we were in the past. But I think the US will continue to be the most influential outside power in the region.

We have greater political, military and economic weight throughout the Arab world than China, Russia or Turkey. Our close relationship with Israel makes the US the only country that can mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. And, Egypt will continue to lean on the US for military technology, spare parts and training, as a very good New York Times article made clear today.

Egypt will also need the US to encourage EU, World Bank and IMF aid to a crippled Egyptian economy. Egypt cannot afford a break with the US, and this reality will keep the US in the game despite the setbacks of the last few weeks. When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told General al-Sisi last week that the killings in Egypt had put the entire relationship “at risk,” it was a clear warning that the Egyptian military should not count on unstinting American support should the killings not stop.  

Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.