The late Hosni Mubarak used to apply an Egyptian folk saying to Egyptian-US relations: “The American cover leaves you bare.” The former president certainly did not belittle the importance of relations between Cairo and Washington. Rather, he was implying that the relationship had limits. There came times when Washington assessed it from a particular, one-sided perspective, rightly or wrongly, so that it was always best to be careful. Mubarak, himself, was given a bitter taste of this when former president Barack Obama signalled to the protesters under the Muslim Brotherhood’s command in Tahrir Square that it was time for him to step down, and “now”.
Cairo and Washington had no disputes over the US’s strategic interests in the region at the time. Instead, Obama’s position had to do with a certain worldview, a take on history. As we know from Obama’s memoirs, Dennis Ross, the US National Security Council (NSC) member who served as assistant to the president, championed the view that Egypt and the Middle East was at a historical crossroads and that Obama had to decide whether or not to be “on the right side of history.”
The events that played out afterwards are well known and well documented. However, one fact has not sufficiently registered in the minds of US political circles: The Obama administration did not have the final say in Egypt; the Egyptian people did, when their will ultimately prevailed against Washington’s sense that the Muslim Brotherhood were historically destined to be in power, and they overthrew Muslim Brotherhood rule a year after they took charge.
Another fact that has not sunk in enough is that Egypt was able to stay firm its resolve because Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain stepped forward to lend a hand, not only financially, but by mustering diplomatic and political resources in the region and the world to enable Egyptians to secure their autonomy. That help came at a moment as critical as the one two decades earlier when Cairo determined that it could not remain idle in the face of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the looming threat to Saudi Arabia. As we know, Kuwait was liberated and the danger to Saudi Arabia averted thanks to an Arab and international coalition in which the US played an important role, but not the only one. Whether at that time or in 2011, the course of history was determined the moment the Arabs began to league together.
In 1991, the realistic and pragmatic Republican administration of George Bush Sr was at the helm in Washington. After the liberation of Kuwait, the US left, deciding not to press forward into Iraq, keeping Iraq as a part of the delicate balance of power in the region. However, the US never stays put for long. Despite constant talk of its institutions, its policies fluctuate, and they went through many changes in the past two decades.
After the conservative Democratic era of Bill Clinton, the US entered the neoconservative era of the George Bush Jr administration, which delivered Iraq into the hands of Iran and the terrorists. Then came the liberals (also neo-, in their own way) under Obama, who thought favourably of the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington then shifted to the white ultra nationalists and Donald Trump, swinging back to another Democrat who is intent on with everyone from states to terrorists. In the course of this journey, the US waged a fierce war against terrorism. Then it retreated and concluded a nuclear deal with Iran, leaving Tehran free to unleash its missiles and proxies in four Arab states. Although Trump withdrew from that agreement, he did nothing to prevent ongoing Iranian aggression. Then Biden came and lifted the terrorist designation from the Houthis which they took as a sign to stage attacks on Marib and urban areas in Saudi Arabia.
This is not to imply that the US is no longer a friend or ally. The problem has to do with its political system, the moods and preoccupations of every electoral season, the rotation of power between Republicans and Democrats, and their various convergences and divergences. Washington’s foreign policy conduct today is a far cry from the post-World War II era when its policy had some stability and when partisan differences stopped at the eastern and western seaboards, and views were united on overseas challenges. It is ironic that no sooner had the US assumed sole leadership of the world after the end of the Cold War and with the spread of globalisation than it reduced its principal global problem to how to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another Arabic proverb goes: “Nothing can scratch your skin like your own fingernail.” It comes from a verse by Imam Al-Shafiei and it basically means: if you want something done right, do it yourself. The situation we see in the region today is the outcome of a shift in the balance of power precipitated by the so-called Arab Spring. Seizing upon the upheaval and turmoil in Arab states, non-Arab regional powers moved to extend their reach and encroach into Arab countries utilising terrorism, affiliated groups and sects and sometimes outright aggression. Years ago, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi proposed a Joint Arab Force as a means to deter and counter such threats.
\Although that idea has yet to crystallise, it helped generate the impetus for the extensive military coordination and the regularly held joint military manoeuvres and drills that we see today among the members of the Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt). While these countries worked to strengthen their defence capacities, what is more, another, no less radical and profound process was set in motion. Its aim was sweeping domestic reform, but it took into account the strategic arrangements in the Middle East, inclusive of the northern Red Sea region, in which framework several peace agreements were signed with Israel.
This brings us to this consummately strategic juncture with its heavy agenda of Iranian, Turkish and Ethiopian threats and aggressions, plus the Palestinian question. The approach to these issues must be strategic. It must include military force as one of its components, but only one. Reforms must continue. Interactions with other regional parties must be conducted in a framework of common interests. And, in addition to integrating the various foreign policy instruments, drawing on both soft and hard powers, enormous reserves of patience and wisdom need to be brought to bear. The overall aim is to achieve a shift in the balance of power in the region that not only conveys its message to hostile parties but also to the US and other Western powers that need to fully appreciate the current threats to regional and international security.
Washington will always be important. But relying on it alone has its limits. Another example of those limits has been demonstrated in the management of the Libyan crisis which nearly spiralled out of control last year due to a policy outlook in Ankara that combines the instruments of the state with terrorism. It was a concert of Egyptian, Arab, European and international efforts that achieved the relative progress towards a solution to the Libyan crisis, bringing that country to the threshold of peace and stability.
These efforts blended the firmness represented by the red line that Egypt drew in Libya with the diplomatic initiatives and mediations that promoted the solutions and agreements that overcame the impasses. Now, the Yemen crisis requires a similar Arab drive. However, we need to look beyond the piecemeal approach. What is required is a promising strategic vision for responding to the various crises and challenges, one that addresses how to handle the non-Arab regional parties and how to augment the Arabs’ autonomous sources of strength. Clearly wisdom dictates that such a comprehensive strategy will be the most effective way for the Arabs to restore the necessary balance and expand the scope of their alliances both quantitatively and qualitatively.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly