Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Field Marshal Tantawi last month in Cairo.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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Whose Side Is Egypt On?

Mubarak-lite leadership coddles Syria but fights terrorism

Marc Tracy
November 17, 2011
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Field Marshal Tantawi last month in Cairo.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Hard to believe it, but we are barely two months away from the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Tahrir Square protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, upended Egyptian politics, and crystallized the Arab Spring. Perhaps harder to believe is that it’s still not clear to what extent the new boss is the old boss in Israel’s most important regional ally, and what that means for Israel and the United States.

For months, the transitional military leadership has hewed awfully close to the style and even personnel of the ancien régime—some of the same folks have stuck around (de facto leader Field Marshal Tantawi has been a top-ranked military officer for a very long time, if you catch my drift). It has at times raised questions about how operative the word “transitional” is. And now the Obama administration, which for most of the year has turned a blind eye to these problems, is taking a harder line with Egypt’s government, insisting that it take democracy, including the parliamentary elections later this month, seriously. “If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials,” Secretary of State Clinton declared last week, “they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity.” As the New York Times notes, the administration’s rhetoric is intended at least as much to mollify the Egyptian people as it is to sway Egypt’s leaders.

The bitter irony is that the will of the Egyptian people is frequently at odds with U.S. interests, particularly when it comes to the U.S. desire to see the Egyptian-Israeli peace maintained and generally that Egypt be kept in its sphere of influence. The tolerance of violent protests at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo; the detention of Israeli-American Ilan Grapel on dubious espionage charges; and the cultivating of closer ties with Hamas and Iran are all things Egypt’s leaders have done—likely in large part with a nod to popular will—that have rubbed the U.S. the wrong way.

To that list, you may add the country’s recent efforts to protect Syria’s Assad regime from what is becoming an extraordinarily broad movement to isolate it. European countries are pushing a U.N. General Assembly resolution to strongly condemn human rights abuses, France has recalled its ambassador, and even the Arab League—whose imprimatur was crucial to the NATO intervention in Libya earlier this year—has suspended Syria and threatened economic sanctions. But Egypt—unlike Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Sunni-ruled nations with which it usually aligns—is resisting the U.N. move and, as Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports, seems to be acting as something like Bashar Assad’s surrogate.

Then again, earlier this week, Egyptian security arrested the Islamists it said were responsible for the deadly attack in southern Israel in August. If Egypt’s leaders’ first principle is self-preservation, and if you buy the line that the Egyptian-Israeli peace exists not just because of U.S. bribery but because of actual, deep-seated, structural common interests, then you actually can feel a little confident. It’s a final, less bitter irony.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.