Egypt, Middle East and US policy after 20 January

Ezzat Ibrahim
Tuesday 3 Nov 2020

How could US relations with Egypt and the Middle East change in the wake of this week’s US presidential elections, asks Ezzat Ibrahim

With all the confusion in its domestic politics, the great divisions in its society, the Covid-19 disaster and the deteriorating domestic economic situation, the urgent question for the rest of the world is whether the United States, in a second term in office for Donald Trump or if the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden wins the presidency, will be able to introduce different and more innovative foreign policies.

Will it be able to compensate for the successive setbacks it has suffered in its foreign policies, unprecedented since World War I? Will the Middle East have a place in the revival process amid such unfavourable circumstances?

GLOBAL CROSSROADS: Donald Trump and Joe Biden have different positions and policies on most major foreign-policy issues. 

On the level of global issues, the contradictions are concentrated in areas of multilateral cooperation, climate change and global public health, where Trump’s slogan of “America First” expresses his hostility towards multilateral organisations. Trump’s rejection of these has been reflected in his decisions to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Human Rights Council and his threat also to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). On the issue of climate change, Trump has taken similarly hostile steps, pulling the US out of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

On the other hand, Biden supports multilateral cooperation and emphasises the post-World War II world order and in particular the renewal of the US commitment to NATO, the retention of US membership of the WHO, and the re-commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Many European capitals are hoping that Biden’s foreign-policy rhetoric will help calm fears among US allies that the multilateral liberal international order is near to collapse. In contrast, the two candidates seem to have little differences with regard to monetary policies, the use of military force, counter-terrorism and US relations with China.

It is expected that the election results will not affect discussions in Washington about the use of military force abroad. Needless to say, China will be at the forefront of foreign-policy issues, and a hardline policy towards Beijing is likely to attract bipartisan support and voter approval. Both the Trump administration and the Biden campaign are taking an increasingly assertive approach to China. In a highly polarised political environment, US policies towards China, as well as on cybersecurity and counterterrorism, represent rare opportunities for bipartisan cooperation if the Republican president remains in the White House and the Democrats control both chambers of Congress over the next four years. 

Biden’s ability to manoeuver in the international arena is limited today due to the rise of China. America is in a state of relative decline, and it needs to make adjustments to its foreign-policy approach and to dispense with the assumptions associated with former US president Barack Obama that have formed a burden on American policy in many respects and especially in the Middle East.

“HAWK LIBERALS” OR CENTRISTS: One expert on US politics describing the possible election of a new president on 3 November said that there was an impression in Washington that a Biden administration could lead to the restoration of the neoconservatives in the US in the shape of “hawk liberals.” 

However, the New York Times has ruled out any particular ideological orientation in the Biden camp, describing it as wedded to “non-strident ideologies” and “collectively they represent a relatively centrist, establishment worldview.”

The real power over future foreign policy is within the small inner circle of the Biden campaign, which consists of veterans of the former Obama and Clinton administrations. These people do not have a record of achievement in foreign policy, and some of them are linked to the catastrophic US-led invasion of Iraq, the failed intervention in Libya, and the Obama administration’s failure to control relations with Russia, among other issues, even if Obama did achieve some limited successes in foreign policy, such as opening up to Cuba.

It is expected that there will be a role for Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, in a future Biden administration, even though Rice has been described as having the worst record of those who have held the position of national security adviser since former US president Harry Truman established the position after World War II. Rice could assume the position of secretary of state in a Biden administration nonetheless, with her main competitor for this position being Anthony Blinken, Biden’s chief adviser on global affairs over many years. 

Blinken has been described as being part of the Washington “swamp,” in Trump’s well-known description of the close relationship between money and politics in Washington, since he co-founded the company WestExec Advisors. This company, which is supposed to provide advisory services rather than lobbying services in order to avoid the Obama-era ban on employing lobbyists in government, has participated in the Pentagon programme to intensify US drone wars among many other controversial projects.

Michele Flournoy, Blinken’s partner, served as US undersecretary of defence for policy from 2009 to 2012, and she expects to be the first woman to take over the Pentagon portfolio in a future Biden administration. During Flournoy’s tenure at the consultancy the Boston Consulting Group, the company’s defence contracts rose nearly twenty-fold. In 2014, she also became CEO of the New American Security Centre, a think tank. 

A significant number of individuals in Biden’s team work in what is known as the “power-brokerage” industry in the US and have established “strategic consulting firms.” This mysterious approach to politics in Washington is important to understanding how a future president Biden would manage foreign policy and how he would choose senior advisers. These types of companies are easily penetrated by countries that have huge funds at their disposal, among them Qatar, and they do so in order to strengthen their relations and build strong bridges in the American capital before any candidate reaches the White House.

THE MIDDLE EAST BETWEEN TRUMP AND BIDEN: Trump’s approach to the Middle East has been tested over the past four years, even as there is difficulty in describing the foreign-policy orientations of the Biden camp. 

Democratic Party sources say that the disparity between two parties in the Democratic camp has been apparent in the Biden campaign, with the first, called “restorers,” and the second, called “reformers,” divided over important issues including confronting China, the Middle East, the economy, liberal democracy and Russia. 

Observers describe discussions on foreign-policy and national security issues in the Biden campaign as having been “complex” and characterised by fundamental differences, many of which have been hidden until now. However, these differences will emerge at a later stage, if the Democratic Party candidate wins the presidency. The “restorers” want to see a return to Obama’s worldview, for example, while the “reformers” question some of his administration’s basic assumptions about China, globalisation, the Middle East and the long-term future of the liberal international order.

Hence, the conflict between the two sides will leave its shadows. The first half of a Biden first term will likely be defined by a conflict between these two worldviews. The Covid-19 crisis will also cast a shadow on the domestic scene after the recent sharp rise in infections in the US, as the second wave of the virus raises immediate questions about the future of the global economy, cooperation with China, and the future of international institutions. 

Some analysts see Biden as a puzzle, adding that if he becomes president, his disagreements with Trump will not be sufficient as an organising principle for his foreign policy. While Biden will be different from Trump, will his presidency differ in important aspects from Obama’s policies, they ask.

Could there be major changes in America’s policies in the Middle East? There has been little evidence on which to form an answer to this question from the Biden campaign. In early comments, Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state,” which opened the door for speculation that he would make some changes in the way the US deals with the Arab Gulf states. But following recent developments between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain, the Democrats’ calculations will likely be different, and it is expected that a future Biden administration will keep to the same course as Trump in order to avoid a setback in US-Israel relations.

Other issues remain to be seen. Will Biden restore close contacts and dialogue with the currents of Political Islam, the most important of which is the Muslim Brotherhood, as Obama did after the 2011 Revolutions in the Arab world? Will Biden present a new formula for an agreement with Iran that does not provoke the Gulf states, which are fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and what would be the reaction of Israel in this case?

Centrist Democrats are raising questions about the high-level military partnerships the United States has maintained in the Middle East for decades. From the viewpoint of these Democratic centrists, the situation in the region and the interests of the United States no longer deserve all the administration’s attention. Some reformers in the Democratic Party acknowledge the need to continue operations against the Islamic State (IS) group or other extremist groups even as they want to avoid more large-scale military interventions in the region. Their vision also includes reducing traditional American commitments in the region, including towards the Arab Gulf states.

The interaction between the various currents in the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign and the possibility of the rise of certain names and their relations with major American institutions will determine to a large extent new US policies in the Middle East, though these may be delayed in the light of the confused internal situation in the country.

EGYPT: In the case of Egypt, it is not possible to rely too much on the possibility that US policy will remain unchanged in the event that Trump wins, despite the great convergence between the US and Egypt during his first term in office.

There are variables, of course, that make Egypt in need of a new vision in managing the relationship with the United States, especially since Trump’s next period in office, if he wins on 3 November, will be for four years, most of which will focus on stabilising and deepening relations between Israel and the Gulf states and building a solid bloc against Iran. 

There are constants in strategic relations with the United States that will be difficult for either side to deviate from in the near future. However, a Democrat victory in both the White House and the Congress could cast a shadow over currently strong bilateral relations between the US and Egypt and raise degrees of tension in a similar way to what occurred during the last three years of the Obama presidency.

The Democratic administration at that time created a crisis in the relationship with Egypt as a result of new practices after the popular revolution in Egypt in 2013 against the rule of the Islamists and the overthrow of former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. The Obama administration did not recognise the popular will in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the latter is still in close contact with some political figures in the US close to the Biden campaign and research centres supporting him in Washington. However, the Obama administration was forced to deal with the change that had taken place in Egypt when it became clear that the popular movement, supported by the military, would not backdown. 

Biden’s long experience in foreign policy over nearly four decades should allow him to rein in some troubling voices in Egyptian-American relations by virtue of the fact that the Middle East today is not the same as it was in 2016.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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