Egypt, Europe and the world – II

Tewfick Aclimandos
Saturday 7 Sep 2019

Is the West still a reliable international partner for Egypt

In a previous article, I tried to confront the fact that Egypt is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, scientifically and technologically dependent.

We should design a strategy aimed at reversing this trend, and, more urgently, another one aiming at minimising the negative consequences of this state of affairs on our national security and well-being.

This starts with the following questions. Can we choose the country to which we are dependent? Can we avoid putting all our eggs in the same basket? Can we separate out different issues and different fields? Or would it be better to link certain issues to others? Can we exploit our economy’s size to gain leverage and improve conditions regarding the transfer of technology? Can we organise a competition between different bidders?  

I will leave the answers to these questions to the experts, but in the meantime I have many things to say. In theory, of course, diversifying our options is a good idea.

In practice, it is not always possible, especially at present with the increasing competition between the great powers and the growing brutalisation of international relations. This is not only the fault of US President Donald Trump, as many other heads of states have contributed to it.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has tried to diversify Egypt’s options, especially after former US president Barack Obama’s ill-considered moves, and he has achieved many notable successes.

Nevertheless, the West has remained our main partner since former president Anwar Al-Sadat switched sides in the 1970s and reversed our alliances. 

We use US and European weapons and technology. We study in their universities. We cooperate with them on security issues. We speak their languages, read their newspapers, watch their films and look at their TV channels.

But is the West still a reliable partner? In fact, this question entails many different ones. It implies, first of all, that Western foreign policies, especially those of the Americans, lack consistency and are too easily reversed.

Second, it seems that we are witnessing a constant and perhaps irreversible decline in the West, especially in Europe.

Third, even if this downward spiral can be stopped, we still cannot be sure that China will not win the competition for world system leadership. 

Western societies have also changed. In each, sharp polarisation opposes those who have benefited from globalisation and those who have suffered from it.

This polarisation has meant that in the United States it is now impossible to reach bi-partisan consensus on almost all the major issues. The consequences of this are all too clear: we can be considered to be a key ally for one administration and a liability for the next for no apparent reason.

Presidents Obama and Trump share some habits: they like mocking the Washington foreign-policy community, and they have tended to consider many of America’s traditional allies to be liabilities, not resources, too often allowing this to lead them to unilateralism. Of course, those who liked working with Obama now hate Trump and vice versa.

And the two presidents’ recipes have greatly differed even as their outcomes have not been brilliant, although it might be too early to tell.

I do not want to open old wounds here. Suffice it to say that our leaders have had some difficult times with the Western media and with US presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama over the past 24 years.

But the fact that our strategic and political alliance with Washington has survived those 24 years proves that our relationship and its mutual benefits are solid enough to withstand such storms.

Our relationship can withstand the antipathy that has sometimes existed between the leaders of our two countries.

Nevertheless, there are causes for concern. Washington has been increasingly prompt to use sanctions, even against its allies. Too often, it wants us to do things we simply cannot do. In general, it tends to consider all its allies to be free-riders.

It does not mind “experimenting” with things that obviously cannot work. Moreover, Egypt has many foes in Washington. Paradoxically, the fact that we are reliable means that few monitor what is happening in Egypt, as no unpleasant surprises are expected. This gives room to our enemies to spread false ideas about our role.

It is clear, however, that we need the relationship with the West. We need to address its critics, and we need to develop it without endangering our own sovereignty. We should propose our own ideas and initiatives. Above all, we should begin to ask whether we need a US with universalist and empire-like aspirations.

Should we prefer a power that uses offshore balancing? How should we deal with these two postures? We should be ready for some difficult times ahead, as many in the liberal camp want to “punish” us for not being as nice as they think they are.

The same thing goes for Europe, but with some caveats. First of all, Europe needs our help on migration, terrorism and trade. Like us, it does not like risky experiments, and it does not feel as safe as the US. 

Geographically, it is more exposed, and financially its resources do not match those of the US. It cannot launch an invasion.

Strategically, Washington can claim it needs to be involved in the crises in the region. While I do not necessarily buy this, there is a case for such an argument. Europe cannot afford to ignore the Middle East either, and this fact has pros and cons. While it cannot toy with our future, it may be tempted by politics appeasing radical and aggressive fundamentalism.

In both cases, a lot will depend on a factor we cannot control: the future of the West’s relations with Turkey. The latter’s strategic importance is obvious, as it controls the gates to Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia. It has a powerful military, even if its abilities have sharply declined.

But it is also crystal clear that its leader is unreliable, perpetually changes alliances, and is prone to brutality. He has frequently manipulated and helped jihadists, and there is no sign that he will stop doing so. He is a master tactician, but his strategic thinking is cloudy. Above all, he has a propensity to interfere in the internal politics of any country that irritates the placid and patient Europeans.

Of course, many in Europe and the United States think they can develop close relations with both Egypt and Turkey. They think they do not need to pay attention to the Turkish leader’s regional behaviour. But time will probably prove them wrong.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of  Al-Ahram Weekly.

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