The Arab ‘Spring’ (also known as the Arab Rebellions and the Arab Awakening) was a series of movements, demonstrations, and revolutions which swept across the Arab world beginning in December of 2010 and which continued through 2011 into 2012.  These movements dramatically altered the political landscape of the Middle East, ushering in democratic reforms and toppling long-seated autocrats.  In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, demonstrators overthrew dictatorial regimes and have begun the transition into democracy. Morocco, Oman, and Jordan have begun reforming their governmental conduct and are gradually opening up their political systems. In Libya, civil war fighters toppled Muammar Gaddafi and have begun to transition the country into a democratic system. In Syria, government crackdowns against demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Assad have sparked growing civil unrest and the possibility for full-blown civil war. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the Arab people’s growing discontent with autocratic, repressive regimes and longing for popular democracy. While these movements towards democracy are good for the dignity of the Arab people, they raise serious questions about the future and shape of American foreign policy towards the region. Of particular interest is the relationship between the United States and Egypt, which is the most populous and arguably most powerful Arab state. A democratic Egyptian government will conduct foreign policy differently than the previous, autocratic regime under Mubarak. As a result, the United States’ foreign policy leverage, capacity, and strategy will be changed when dealing with a democratic Egypt. Understanding these differences and analyzing potential changes in the politics of the region will enable foreign policy scholars and legislators to develop new strategies for the years to come.

Prior to the Arab Spring, the United States focused much of its attention and resources on Egypt. Under the rule of Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the United States and Egypt became strategic partners. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the two countries sought to enhance relations in order to foster a peace process with Israel. Normal diplomatic relations were reestablished on February 28th, 1974. The United States and Egypt began to build military and economic ties, with the United States providing Egypt with about $19 billion in military aid in the period between 1979 and 2003, as well as over $28 billion in economic and development assistance since 1975. In 1989, Egypt was designated as a ‘Major non-NATO Ally of the United States’. Following the September 11th attacks, Egypt declared strong backing for the United States in its war against international terrorism.[1]

These close ties and military support were used to leverage Egyptian support for stability in the region and were also used to influence regional politics. The Arab League headquarters is in Cairo, and the Secretary General of the League is traditionally an Egyptian. Under a foreign policy favorable towards the United States, these positions would be used to increase American influence in the Arab world and develop policies favoring American standpoints. Egypt was a key partner in maintaining peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadat’s trip to Israel in 1977, the 1978 Camp David Accords, and the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty represented a shift from a strategy of confrontation to one of peace as the strategic political choice in the region. In the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 hosted by the United States and Russia, Egypt played an important role in negotiations seeking to discuss Middle Eastern peace. During the 1990-1991 Gulf Crisis, Egypt played a leading role. It helped assemble an international coalition against Iraq, and deployed 35,000 of its own troops against Iraq during the fight to liberate Kuwait. The Egyptian contingent was the third largest in the coalition forces, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. Following the war, Egypt signed the Damascus declaration with Syria and the Gulf states, seeking to strengthen Gulf security and cooperation. In 1996, President Mubarak hosted the “Summit of the Peacemakers”, which was attended by President Clinton and other world leaders and which sought to discuss peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mubarak held further summits on the issue in 2000 and 2003, meeting with President George W. Bush. Throughout 2004, Egypt worked closely with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to facilitate stability following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Plans for this included an agreement that allowed Egypt to deploy forces along the Philadelphia Corridor in an attempt to control the border and prevent weapons smuggling.[2] Since June of 2007, Egypt also assisted Israel in blockading the Gaza strip from the land, the air, and the sea.

Egyptian-American cooperation was thus very significant in the period before the Arab Spring: the United States provided large amounts of monetary and military assistance to Egypt in return for Egyptian support and regional stability. American support for autocratic Egypt was motivated heavily by the Realist paradigm. Despite the ideological differences between the United States and Egypt and the contradiction between American political ideals and Egyptian political reality, the United States allied with Egypt because of Egyptian hegemony in the region. Egypt is the most populous and arguably most militarily capable Arab state, and thus controls the largest amount of power in the Arab world. Because of this, it is the state most capable to influence regional politics and promote stability, and thus the United States used it as a tool to indirectly influence the region and protect the security of Israel. Indeed, the United States found it easy to deal with, support, and prop up a powerful autocracy which would ensure peace in a volatile and strategically important region, despite human rights violations and a closed political system. Under the rule of President Mubarak, the Egyptian regime allowed only a very limited public discussion of the issue of Palestine, censoring much criticism of Egyptian policy towards Israel and even Hamas. While Egypt under Mubarak maintained a ‘cold peace’ with Israel, under his leadership Egypt was host to a number of important Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. To maintain ties with the United States, Mubarak was hostile towards Iran and its allies Hezbollah, Syria, and Hamas, despite popular sentiment against such policies. According to ‘Wikileaks’ cabals released in 2010, Mubarak had even given Israel a green light to conduct its 2008 bombing raids on Hamas in the Gaza strip.[3]

Popular uprisings began on January 25th, 2011 in Egypt as the revolutionary tide of the Arab Spring swept across Egypt. Grievances of the protesters focused on legal and political issues, including police brutality, the abuse of state of emergency laws, corruption, economic issues, food price inflation, and the lack of free elections.[4] Millions of demonstrators demanded the overthrow of the regime of President Mubarak. While most protests were peaceful, occasional violent clashes between protestors and security forces occurred, and at least 846 people were killed. On February 11th, Mubarak resigned from office. Since then, Egypt has begun to transition into a functional democracy, although that transition has been rocky. On the 23rd of January, 2012, the Egyptian Parliament conducted an election. Of 498 elected seats, Islamists secured nearly 70%, with the Muslim Brotherhood controlling 235 total seats and the conservative Salafist Nour party controlling 125. Presidential elections are scheduled for the end of June, 2012, with potential frontrunners including politicians from the Mubarak regime, Muslim Brotherhood candidates, and political independents. The exact nature and details of the separation of powers in the democratic Egypt are still unclear. The military establishment will most likely retain powers dealing with national security, foreign affairs, and the defense budget. This might allow for a more stable Egyptian foreign policy reminiscent of the Mubarak era, but the military establishment will also likely fall under the influence of, and will need to be responsive to, the civilian-elected legislature and thus public opinion. [5]

An important consideration is how foreign policy is formulated differently in democracies than it is in autocracies. Autocratic regimes have massive leeway in forming their foreign policy: dictators can develop their own foreign policy strategies and frameworks without taking into consideration the opinions of the public. Autocracies subordinate their foreign policy to the goal of maintaining power, choosing strategies that will preserve the autocrat’s dominant position within the state. This can enable autocracies to engage in confrontational and hawkish attitudes, like in North Korea and Iran, to bolster their legitimacy and win the support of political elites, even though the general public support may support international cooperation and political moderation. Similarly, autocrats may develop foreign policy frameworks and international ties which are unpopular with the population, but which bolster the strength of the state and thus the autocrat’s position.[6] Pre-revolution Egypt is an example of this, where Egyptian ties with the United States and Israel were the focus of Egyptian foreign policy but unpopular with the general population. These ties, however, brought to Egypt massive amounts of military and economic aid, and helped Egypt become the preeminent Arab military and economic power. Foreign policy formation in a democracy operates differently than in an autocracy. How the public influences foreign policy is viewed differently across different international relations paradigms. Realists believe that leaders will either ignore the general public opinion and instead focus on what they view is the national interest, or will lead the masses to support their position. Liberals believe that the public opinion plays a role in constraining and shaping foreign policy, because a successful foreign policy in a democracy requires the support of the people.[7]

Despite their differences in explaining how foreign policy is formed in a democracy, both paradigms point to a scenario in Egypt which will be unfavorable to the United States. Assuming Realist assumptions are correct, the bodies in Egypt formulating foreign policy will still take positions contrary to the United States and Israel. For most Egyptians seated in the new parliament, it is believed that Egypt’s national interest is in gaining hegemony in the region, which would require it to stand against American clout and balance against Israel. Even if the Egyptian military remains in control of Egyptian foreign policy, as it traditionally was, Egypt’s relationship with other players in the Arab world will change. According to some analysts, the military views friendship with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria, all traditional Israeli and American adversaries, as being in its own interests: By maintaining connections with all major factions in the Middle East, the military will increase its own influence in regional politics.[8] Such a repositioning in Egyptian strategic ties, as well as a distancing between Egypt and the United States, will lessen American hegemony in the region and hurt American political goals, such as containing Iran’s influence, weakening its proxies, and maintaining regional stability. Further, such a repositioning will create a security dilemma in Israel, who views these countries as being its direct adversaries. Under the rule of Mubarak, Egypt was able to serve as a balance to these powers, and thus lessen the perception of danger within Israel. An Egypt that is forming ties with these powers, however, will cause Israel to feel surrounded, isolated, and have the need to strengthen itself in order to balance the new ratio of power. The prospects for American influence in the post-revolution Egypt are equally dim should liberalism more accurately describe the formation of foreign policy. Both the leadership and the general population within Egypt view Israel and the United States with mistrust and believe that Egypt should balance against Israel and assert more hegemony. A foreign policy developed along those lines would be just as damaging to American influence in the region as one developed according to the Realist paradigm.

Indeed, without the repression and censorship that came with Mubarak’s rule and with greater public influence in the realm of foreign policy, Egyptian public opinion and support for the Palestinian cause, as well as Egyptian perception of the United States, has the capability to seriously strain Israeli-Egyptian and Egyptian-American relations. Egypt’s alliance with Washington unnerved the Egyptian public, who felt that Egypt’s standing in the Arab world was slipping because of the American-backed Mubarak. In order to rebuild this influence in the Arab region, candidates, activists, and experts from across the political spectrum agreed that Egypt should seek friendlier relationships with Iran and its allies. At the same time, they feel that Egypt should lessen its strategic ties with the United States, and assert itself more strongly when dealing with the West. The feeling pervasive amongst Egyptians is that they want their country to be the center of the Arab world, which would require a consolidation of power and clout.[9] Meanwhile, in the case of further Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli actions against Palestinians in urban areas are sure to cause Arab civilian casualties. These images broadcast over satellite television and the Internet will have a deeply destabilizing effect on Egyptian public opinion. The stalemate on the issue of Israeli settlements and the status of a Palestinian state will also serve to ignite the sentiments of the Egyptian population.[10] As a result of these sentiments, according to some analysts, anti-Israeli sentiment is growing within Egypt. This, in turn, influences how Egyptians view their foreign policy when dealing with Israel. In a Pew Research Center poll published two months after the revolution, 54 percent of Egyptians favored annulling the peace agreement with Israel. Some radical parties within Egypt favor plans to close the Suez Canal to the Israeli navy and block the sale of natural gas to Israel.[11]

The growing clout of Islamists in the Egyptian political system will also influence Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Islamist groups may not accept an Israeli or American foreign policy that is adversarial to the Islamic Hamas. According to experts, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties will not likely be committed to a peace treaty with Israel, or will at the least be confrontational with Israel. According to a review on Israeli-Egyptian relations, “One spokesperson for the Salafist Nour party said, “We will abide by the treaty, but this does not mean accepting a number of clauses which the Egyptian people are clearly and unanimously against, such as exporting gas to Israel”[12]. The Islamification of Egypt’s democracy will cause a major strategic shift in Egypt’s orientation, and as Islamic parties currently hold a majority of seats in Egypt’s parliament, it is likely that Egyptian foreign policy will be pushed further away from American interests.[13]

It is clear that the future of American foreign policy for the Arab region will need to adapt to the new realities presented by Egyptian democracy. No longer can the United States expect the support of the most powerful Arab state in return for bankrolling its military and economic development. Similarly, the United States can no longer rely on autocratic regimes to support and maintain stability in the region. New assumptions should be made in response to the change in the political structure of Egypt, as well as across the Arab world. The foremost assumption is that American political influence in the Middle East and its capacity for directly influencing Arab politics is now weakened. The loss of a strategic partner in Egypt means that the United States cannot call for its support in influencing regional politics and maintaining stability with Israel. Furthermore, without the combined strength of American and Egyptian hegemony facing them, other Arab states can be expected to be less receptive to American influence and positions on Arab regional politics. With this in mind, the United States will need to be more cautious when trying to assert its position in the Arab world and more receptive to compromise. On a similar note, the United States will have no choice but to lessen its firm support for Israel while opening up greater room and possibility for compromise on the issue of Palestine. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is currently the greatest ‘powder-keg’ in the Arab region, and the stance of a democratic Egypt will put it at odds with Israel should the Israeli government, backed by the United States, continue the policies it has been undertaking for the past few years. The United States can no longer be assured of stability and cooperation on the issue from the Egyptians while also fully backing the Israeli government. In fact, a democratic Egypt coming at odds with Israel could provide surrounding Arab states enough confidence to do the same, thus providing even greater incentive for the United States to temper its uncompromising support for Israeli policies. A conflict in the region would be disastrous for the already weakening American position in the Middle East, as well as very costly for all parties involved in the fighting.

The United States can, however, still utilize tools at its disposal to influence Egyptian and regional politics, even in the post-revolution era. The United States still provides economic and military aid and assistance to Egypt, and this money has recently greatly helped an Egypt whose economy suffered greatly during the revolution.[14] The United States could ‘dangle’ the possibility of further aid towards Egypt should certain conditions which reflect American interests and values be met, or raise the possibility for aid cuts should Egypt develop a foreign policy at odds with the interests of the United States. Additionally, the United States could promote free-trade agreements and other bilateral forms of cooperation with Egypt, should the regime fall into line with the interests of the United States. While Egypt does seek greater hegemony and autonomy in the region, cooperation with the United States would do nothing but bolster its own strength and capabilities. Additionally, forgoing American support and aid would do much to harm a weakened Egyptian economy and shaky transition, a fact which American policy makers could make apparent to Egyptian legislators.

Despite a weakened direct influence in the region, the United States can still employ the policy of ‘offshore balancing’ in the Middle East in order to bring Egypt and other powers back into its camp. Offshore balancing is when a power plays with regional politics, favoring certain regional powers, to counter the growth of a certain power in the region. In the case of the Middle East, the United States could use the rise of Iran as a regional power to bring Egypt back in line with its own interests. While the Egyptian government does seek greater ties with Iran, they will also come into direct competition in some point in the future for hegemony over Arab politics. Egypt would gain much by aligning itself with the United States, who is already in opposition towards Iran. The United States should make this point apparent to Egyptian policymakers, and demonstrate that it has the capacity to help Arab states against Iran, should they align themselves with American interests. The development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will also trigger a ‘bandwagon’ affect across the Middle East, where Arab powers unable to develop their own nuclear weapons, such as Egypt[15], will seek the protection of another nuclear armed power to deter against Iran. The United States could easily serve as this protector for Egypt, and this would do much to help bring Egypt to cooperate with American interests and regional goals. Finally, the United States can use messages of democratic solidarity and shared ideals with the Egyptian population to reform its image in the Egyptian mind. Messages such as support for personal freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and political participation could help bolster the idealistic ties between the United States and the liberated Egyptian population. Additionally, Liberal theory argues that a ‘democratic peace’ exists, in which no democracies go to war. If this is a case, then the United States, Israel, and Egypt, all being democracies, will have a lessened chance of open, armed confrontation.

The revolution and subsequent transition towards democracy in Egypt will change American influence within Egypt and thus American foreign policy strategy across the Middle East. A democratic Egypt will be less likely to cooperate with Israel and the United States in a manner similar to the Mubarak era, and will most likely be more openly antagonistic towards Israel and American interests. The United States, however, still has a number of tools at its disposal to influence regional politics and bring a democratic Egypt back into a system of cooperation.

Works Cited

[1] Egypt, Foreign Relations, March 12th 2012, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5309.htm#relations

[2] Egypt, Foreign Relations

[3] Egyptian Foreign Policy After the Election, Geneive Abdo, November 29th 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/features/letters-from/egyptian-foreign-policy-after-the-election

[4] Egypt Protests a Ticking Time Bomb: Analysts, January 27th, 2011, http://www.thenewage.co.za/8894-1007-53-Egypt_protests_a_ticking_time_bomb_Analysts

[5] Egypt in Transition, Jeremy M. Sharp, February 8th 2012, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf

[6] Regime Strategy and Foreign Policy in Autocracies, Debra Shulman, Yale University, 2008

[7] To What Extent is Foreign Policy Making Affected by Public Opinion in a Liberal Democracy, Rudi Guraziu, January 2008, http://www.atlanticcommunity.org/app/webroot/files/articlepdf/To%20what%20extent%20is%20foreign%20policy%20making%20affected%20by%20public%20opinion.pdf

[8] Egyptian Foreign Policy After the Election

[9] The Impact of the Arab Spring on the Future of Egypt-Israel Relation, Koshan Ali Khidhir, December 28th, 2011, http://www.globalpolitician.com/27244-israel-egypt-arab-spring-islam

[10] Egyptian Foreign Policy After the Election

[11] The Impact of the Arab Spring on the Future of Egypt-Israel Relation

[12] Egypt in Transition

[13] The Impact of the Arab Spring on the Future of Egypt-Israel Relation

[14] Egypt in Transition

[15] Don’t Fear a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East, Stephen Cook, April 2nd 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/02/don_t_fear_a_nuclear_arms_race