Cairo remains dependent on US aid, says scholar of Egyptian foreign policy

Man in crowd waves Egyptian flag

Political activism from the Palestine solidarity movement eventually translated protest against the Mubarak regime.

Ahmed Asad APA images

For decades, Palestinians and their supporters have condemned the weak, manipulative and often capricious attitudes of many Arab regimes — particularly Egypt — towards Israel.

While some Palestinians and their supporters saw a ray of light in the election of Mohammed Morsi and his government’s apparent solidarity with Gaza when it came under attack by Israel in November 2012, the Egyptian state’s more recent behavior towards its neighbors in Gaza have highlighted how unreliable this support can be. In February, for example, the Cairo authorities launched an operation against the tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt, flooding them with sewage.

A new book — Representing Israel in Modern Egypt: Ideas, Intellectuals and Foreign Policy from Nasser to Mubarak by Ewan Stein of the University of Edinburgh — examines the positions of Egypt’s political and intellectual classes towards Palestine and Israel since the 1930s.

Sarah Irving spoke to Ewan Stein for The Electronic Intifada.

Sarah Irving: When this book came out, some people might have suggested that it was of purely historical interest, since the Arab uprisings had done away with Hosni Mubarak’s regime and brought about widespread political change. Now the Morsi government is behaving more and more like a continuation of the old state. Can you summarize the history of Egyptian attitudes to Israel?

Ewan Stein: The book has a historical narrative going back to the 1930s and ’40s, how intellectuals within different ideological trends have conceptualized Israel, and how that’s related to shifts in the global and regional political environment. It’s too early to tell how those shifts will play out in Egypt now. But one of the things I was trying to argue was that the structural imbalance between state and society in Egypt, between regime and civil society, has meant that there has been a disconnect between foreign policy at the state level, particularly since [Anwar] Sadat [president from 1970 to 1981], and ideas about foreign policy in society.

What’s interesting now is that you have a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest political-social movement in Egypt. So in theory at least that connection has been re-established, a connection that you had in the ’50s and ’60s under [Gamal Abdel] Nasser.

Then, there was an ideological connection which integrated foreign policy ideology and domestic ideology. The idea of revolution and socialism under Nasser was connected to Arab nationalism and the approach to Israel was rationalized in those terms. Israel was basically a manifestation of imperialist domination in the region, just like the British in Egypt had been. So Israel was actually the same issue that Egypt was facing domestically, so tackling it was the same, and it was to do with building socialism, fighting imperialism. The left as an intellectual movement was crucial in formulating these ideas and Nasser adopted many of them.

You have a similar thing with the Muslim Brotherhood. You can’t generalize about Islamism, but there are commonalities between Islamist thinkers — whether Brotherhood thinkers or Salafis or jihadists — which is that Israel is the residue of the colonial period. So there is a colonial occupation of Palestine in its crudest form — military and material — but you also have a colonial presence throughout the rest of the Arab world, but it’s a more subtle form of cultural and intellectual imperialism. Sayyid Qutb and many intellectuals up to now argue this.

This continues to link the foreign policy agenda with the domestic agenda. The priority remains securing Islamic Egyptian identity. Israel is tackled within that rubric. With the revival of Islam in the region, unity amongst Islamic states will eventually solve the problem of Israel, inexorably.

Both of these ways of looking at things absolve the state, the regime, of responsibility for taking immediate steps because it’s a long-term structural trend. So in some ways it’s tempting to see what’s happening now as turning back the clock to the period under Nasser when there was an ideological plan for the region as a whole, with Israel part of that but not necessarily the main part.

The problem with this is that propaganda only works if it’s seen to accord with reality in some way. What happened with Nasser is that the defeat of 1967 destroyed the whole integrated plan and the extent to which the current regime can rationalize inaction in that way is nothing like 1967, so it depends to some extent on what Israel does. The November 2012 bombardment in Gaza and the fact that Morsi was seen to be able to put an end to that quite quickly was fortunate for him, but there is no guarantee that that will continue.

SI: Within this logic, how does Morsi’s reaction to the November 2012 bombing of Gaza fit in? It raised a lot of hopes at the time and provided excellent propaganda for him.

ES: I think he acted quite quickly and sensibly and it’s intelligible in those terms. The way he framed Egypt’s response was very much in terms of a unified Egyptian response — the regime and the people. And political forces, particularly the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the Brotherhood party, and the Salafis, had a strong interest in supporting this idea that Egypt is acting as one strong, unified country, so it was significant that both the PM [prime minister] and key political leaders went to Gaza. That represents a presentational change in Egypt’s approach.

SI: Many Palestinians criticize the way that a lot of Arab states use opposition to the occupation as a rallying cry, but rarely do anything that genuinely helps the Palestinian people. How does your analysis of Egyptian thought and political behavior reflect on this?

ES: I accept that that’s the case, but one of the things that’s been neglected has been the fact that opposition groups and social movements do the same thing. They use the the Palestine question — not necessarily in a calculated, instrumental way, but in effect it’s instrumentalized, because it’s linked to their own political strategies and visions. It’s kind of inevitable. So under Mubarak it was seen as safe political ground on which to mobilize. From the time of the first intifada, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to use it to mobilize its street presence in a way that it hadn’t been able to before. Political activism came out of the Palestine solidarity movement, which was something the regime was broadly happy to allow, so long as it didn’t translate too quickly into protest against the regime, but it inevitably did in the end.

SI: The Mubarak regime tried to use popular mobilization on Palestine as a political safety valve; but in the end it helped to build the movements which brought down the regime. Do you think this will make other Middle Eastern states nervous of allowing popular campaigning on Palestine?

ES: I think what’s changed with the Arab Spring is that this no longer works, mainly because the door has been opened to protest authoritarianism directly. It doesn’t have to go through the prism of Palestine. In the long term, that’s probably a healthy thing. It means that support for Palestine will be on its own terms, as opposed to a kind of code for criticism of domestic regimes.

What was interesting about what happened in Egypt is that Morsi’s Gaza campaign was a big success, and then he went straight into the declaration on the constitution. Which was in some ways the opposite of what would normally happen — the tension from this foreign policy issue was diverted into the domestic arena. I’ve been trying to read up on how different intellectuals have reacted to what happened in Gaza and Morsi’s role and because of what happened so soon after it, there’s actually very little. If you go through the Islamist web forums and search for articles on Palestine and Gaza, you get loads from 2008-2009 and you get one or two recent ones, saying “this is no longer the main issue for us.” Everything is on the domestic issues.

SI: What have been the effects of the tense relationship between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian Salafis on the similarly difficult relationship between Hamas and the Salafist movement in Gaza?

ES: This is a very interesting dynamic. It’s unclear how this will play out and a lot of this relates to the regional dimension. The Salafis are now trying to create a similar structure to what the Brotherhood nominally has, which is an international organization. So Hizb An-Nur has now established itself in Gaza.

SI: And Hamas had to allow that, because it felt beholden to Morsi and he needed it for domestic reasons?

ES: Yes. The Salafis have been calling on Hamas to expand its contacts within the Islamic movement in Egypt, not just to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood, but also to develop links with the Salafis. This relates to the slightly ambiguous role of Saudi Arabia in the Palestine question in general; the competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar prefers the Brotherhood and has taken steps to bolster and legitimize Hamas, as it has done with the Brotherhood throughout the region, but Saudi Arabia is deeply suspicious of them.

So you have this dynamic where Saudi Arabia is trying, as it long has, to use the Salafi movement in the region as a proxy for its own interests, and Qatar is trying to use the Muslim Brotherhood as part of its rivalry with the Saudis, and this all links in quite complicated and not very clear ways with the role of Turkey, Iran and Hizballah. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are obviously much more open to these forces having a clear role, both material and moral, in the Palestine conflict. Saudi Arabia and the Salafis are quite anti-Shia, anti-Hizballah, anti-Iran, so these are dynamics which I think will be crucial in the years to come. The resolution of last year’s bombardment in Gaza seems to suggest there’s potential for these rivalries to be resolved, but ultimately it’s hard to see how.

SI: Are you saying that this is effectively a temporary entente but that there are fundamental incompatibilities?

ES: Yes. There are people like Magdi Hussein of Hizb al-Amal in Egypt, who has long argued that what Egypt should do is extricate itself completely from the US embrace and move towards Iran, Hizballah, become part of that “axis of resistance” and turn to the Chinese and the North Koreans. He sees what happened in Gaza as evidence that that can happen.

But the American role is another one which is probably changing. The Americans are trying to shift their attention from the Middle East, but it’s very difficult for them to do that. Morsi recently signed off on another massive aid package from the USA because the regime — the deep state in Egypt — is very much the same as it was before. It’s still structurally dependent on international aid and the United States, and that, in the final analysis, will continue to affect Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel, and that’s not really going to change unless there’s genuine structural change in Egypt.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.